Why the Digital TV Delay May be a Good Thing

To be blunt:  America has the world’s most overpriced, antiquated, under-performing and anti-convergence digital TV system, and yet another delay in transition will create yet another round of inevitably-necessary but paper-over-the-problems government subsidies to highly questionable interests of highly doubtful economic value to enfranchise millions of consumers into the digital TV transition who should never have been disenfranchised in the first place.

All for technology that could be much less expensive, indeed free!

So how could this possibly be a good thing?

For one, it might spark a much-needed rethink of how we got here in the first place and a consideration of a better path forward.

Rethinking digital TV is no doubt a mind-bendingly complex topic fraught with peril, and one that will require hunting into the very nature of good government oversight.

A hunt for good government oversight of commerce — a very timely topic on many fronts, isn’t it?

So here are three start-the-hunt topics, hints to further analysis, really, I’d suggest to anyone looking into digital TV:

  • – “vendor capture”
  • – “misplaced Americanism”
  • – “out-sourced justice”

“Vendor Capture”

One hint at the need for broader rethink came in pledges last week by the new acting FCC chairman Michael Copps for more openness at the FCC to

“make the FCC more transparent, open and useful to the stakeholders that we serve. And when I say stakeholders, I include not just the industries that we regulate but, more importantly, all citizens—and here let me once again underline the word ‘all.'”  (emphasis added)

Such a pledge to openness taps into a vein of “Reforming the FCC” projects sprouting up.

Of course, vendor capture by interested interests is nothing new for regulatory agencies or even standards groups that purport to represent broader interests.

Indeed, vendor capture is a timeless occupational hazard even when challenged with the best of intents.  But recognizing and controlling vendor capture seems to have been an un-exercised muscle in the DTV regulatory community, particularly in the deregulation orthodoxies of recent decades.

One saga of vendor capture worth reexamining in light of downturn economics is the FCC’s decade long (5744 filings to date!), epically byzantine “separable security” proceeding for cable TV.  Like the DTV transition, this proceeding lives on in an odd “convergence-what-convergence?” bubble of regulating each industry sub-segment in isolation and has only recently begun to ask such basic questions as “whether there are technological solutions that are network agnostic and deployable across all MVPD [Multichannel Video Programming Distributor] platforms”.

“Misplaced Americanism”

But before a rush to blame “someone” devolves to easily-blamed “usual suspects” — like non-voting foreigners — take a look closer to home.

The CUT FATT group has sounded a very important alarm about the patent royalties fiasco that is dogging the US digital TV transition, and has connected the dot to the delay in DTV transition:

“Delaying the DTV transition date is the first step to protecting consumers, but is only part of the remedy needed,” …“Large foreign corporations that bought U.S. patents are exploiting the transition to make outrageous profits off digital television sales to consumers.”

Now such a statement read superficially might be misconstrued as a call to “misplaced Americanism”  (big foreign corporations bad etc. etc.) — which would miss the point that it is American consumers who ultimately pay.

Rather, look back to a well-known anecdote from the “Grand Alliance” that was tasked in the mid-1990s with recommending the digital TV system to the FCC in the first place, whose decision making process was later neatly summarized in a news article after ensuing litigation:

“half of the voting members, MIT and Zenith, of the Grand Alliance were receiving monetary compensation from Dolby as a partial result of their vote for Dolby … Dolby’s selection came after it offered another of the four voting members of the Alliance’s Technical Oversight Group, Zenith Electronics Corp., a 25 percent discount on patent royalties in exchange for Zenith’s vote”

MITThe scandal of relevance isn’t whether the decision making was rigged or not (though the jury in the subsequent contract dispute concluded Dolby indeed owed MIT for a secret agreement in which MIT fell on its sword in voting against its own technology in favor of Dolby) — it is the more subtle “vote American” context that some used to rationalize the situation overall and was captured in the same news article:

“Jae [the MIT representative on the Grand Alliance] was very pro-American,” … “He would naturally favor an American system over a foreign system.” …“Jae knew he supported American solutions, so that deal was consistent with that,” … “If it hadn’t been consistent, I don’t think Jae would have made the deal.”

An interesting justification indeed for one American institution (MIT) to vote for an American institution (Dolby) in a backroom deal that was to benefit both.

“Out-sourced Justice”

Another aspect of the curious MIT-Dolby dispute was the question of whether there was a conflict of interest at all, since the Grand Alliance was only recommending a joint decision to the FCC, not actually making the final decision.

“I can see how it would be perceived as a conflict of interest,” Gast said. But the Grand Alliance “wasn’t a decision-making body,” it was a group of companies joining together, at the request of the FCC, to make a unified proposal, she said.

Sounds reasonable enough, until one fast-forwards a few years and considers such statements in the CUT FATT filing to the FCC as:

“The FCC does not know what license terms ATSC patent holders demand or how much consumers ultimately pay for the DTV standard the FCC chose.”

If that sounds like a case of “out-sourced regulation” — consider it might be even more — a case of “out-sourced justice”.

Patent pool licensing practices, which also began to be authorized in the same time frame by the US Department of Justice after a long period of at most skeptical legitimacy, have begun to beget “To Join or Not to Join” trolling:  “as many as one half to two-thirds of the eligible firms choose not to join a patent pool”, engendering a “myth of essentiality” practice of outsourcing patent pool evaluations to so-called “independent contractors” paid by the very same patent holders.

But more on that topic another day — in the meantime: happy hunting!

4 thoughts on “Why the Digital TV Delay May be a Good Thing

  1. I think that anyone would be hard pressed to design a digital tv standard that supported efficient video forward error correction and interlacing without hitting the patent thicket that the companies designing MPEG-2 created. As I understand this OMS gets around this by basically supporting neither (which is quite acceptable for video for computer screens that is using a reliable transport). That said the ATSC probably could have used technology that had less patents and patents that expired sooner.

    1. Interlacing in TV is of course old as the hills, commercially deployed starting in the 1930’s, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interlace, which makes it a questionable leg of a patent-extension stool. Challenges have long been widespread, quoting from July, 1996: “Opponents see continuing interlace as anywhere from a bureaucratic disaster to a nefarious plan to milk interlace patents.”

      Similarly forward error correction techniques long predated MPEG: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forward_error_correction for a few citations.

      MPEG Systems patent 5,457,701, http://www.mpegla.com/m2s/m2s-patentlist.cfm, recognizes this and states “Description of the Prior Art …. Essentially, a forward error correction code is appended to each packet”. Perhaps this may provide insight into why a much more modest technique of ‘a one bit field of each header is pre-defined as a “packet error indicator”‘ is described in the patent and claims and is included in the pool. One might characterize as a “damaged in transit” flag — simply notification of “an uncorrectable error occurred”, not error correction.

  2. I agree with you that interlacing is not needed for new implementations. I also agree with you that it probably is possible to implement a royalty free digital tv standard with interlacing and forward error correction. I think it would be very expensive to patent clear it. For example, MPEG-1 video at least has age on its side, and Wikipedia, Redhat and Ubuntu don’t consider it clear enough of patents to support it.

    1. Yes, any IPR-aware methodology would be well-served to start from a sure foundation of demonstrably-known intellectual property rights.

      It is intuitively much easier, and FUD-resistant, to “add only royalty-free bricks to a royalty-free foundation”, particularly in domains that have evolved over decades and already have developed multiple solutions and algorithms. Royalty-free oriented standards groups recognize this, as do product developers in patent-oriented domains.

      Expired patents, public domain technologies, known prior art are some starting points.

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