Don’t Quit – Evolve! ATSC Forum to Close Doors

Last week, Business News Americas broke the story that the ATSC Forum — the industry group that lobbies for the international adoption of the US ATSC digital TV standard of the Advanced Television Systems Committee — plans to close its doors at the end of September.

Although the ATSC Forum’s closure has gotten little attention in the US, the story has been picked up in South America, where the ATSC Forum’s lobbying efforts have been swamped by momentum for the Japanese-Brazilian ISDB system (an under-reported story in itself, as some are recognizing).
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The ATSC Forum was “established in late 2001 to promote DTV and ATSC standards, especially throughout Latin America”, and has lobbied other countries, including the Philippines, as have rivals European-led DVB and Japanese-led ISDB.  And as quoted below, the Forum has cleverly worded a fantasy strategy to skirt patent fees that will no doubt bring a chuckle on close examination.

Recent strident exception the ATSC Forum has taken to contentions here that there are structurally-flawed patent licensing processes at the heart of ATSC and DTV communities (reiterated below as recently as last month in Haiti, see below), puts an interesting light on the reported reasoning that the ATSC Forum is giving for closing its doors:

“manufacturing companies that represent the ATSC are now less concerned about which digital TV standard the equipment they make represents and so are increasingly less inclined to finance a group advocating one standard or another”.

Really?  Surely, specific patent or commercial interests may be the last standing in an end-game of standards advocacy, particularly when interests are unclearly spread across multiple standards and advocacy groups.

And though the ATSC Forum website does not list which members are sponsors ($25K/year) or just general members ($5K/year), four vendors appear prominent at the website in recent years (Zenith/LG, Samsung, Dolby, and Harris).  Three, as well as the ATSC Forum and the ATSC, have filed in the FCC inquiry on patent royalty overcharging challenged by the CUT FATT group, and Harris, the largest transmission equipment supplier for ATSC, turned against certain patent licensing practices and sided with the CUT FATT group.

But according to government reports, in 2003, the ATSC Forum received $399K in export promotion market development funds from the International Trade Administration of the US Department of Commerce.  Ouch –  patent pool promotion as export trade policy.

Indeed, a 2004 success story at the US Department of Commerce Market Development Cooperator Program website describes the 3-year campaign in optimistic terms, predicting $8 billion in US exports (subsequently revised down to $5.6 million).  And also in terms that likely seemed entirely reasonable at the time, but which now seem vaguely like a fight-the-last-war replay of the 1960s Cold War color TV standards wars — little resembling the new globalization-era, each-country-is-a-partner ethic reflected in the launch of the new ISDB-T International Forum web site for South America.

And in 2007, the US National Association of Broadcasters funded a mobile TV initiative for $750K with many did-they-learn-the-right-lessons parallels to the ATSC Forum.

So the ATSC Forum is leaving unfinished business and (potentially) unlearned lessons:

Patent Licensing Processes Need Reform.
Hybrid Broadcast-Broadband Needs Uncaptured Standards.
The Curious Rebirth of Free TV Needs Tending.
US Mobile TV Risks Institutionalizing Same Mistakes.
Network policy in the broadband age should promote a global level playing field

In sum, the Network Policy Techno-Politics mix is still out of balance — but to ATSC Forum’s credit they have included technical reasoning along with political advocacy — something that recent FCC broadband dialog seems to lack so far.

To quote Richard Elkus’ 2008 “Winner Take All: How Competitiveness Shapes the Fate of Nations” (it was Elkus who in 1988 sounded the call that US digital TV policy may “reflect the ebbing tide of United States technological and economic leadership”):

“All of America’s technological industries and institutions are linked. … Strategy is everything.”

References

“Patent license fees are not important in the selection of a DTV transmission standard …. For almost every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, no patents apply for products manufactured and sold within that country”

ATSC Digital Television Update, Robert K. Graves, Chairman, ATSC Forum, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, August 7, 2009, http://www.conatel.gouv.ht/atsc/ATSC%20Update%20and%20Advantages.pdf

“But almost none of the patents that apply in the U.S. have been filed in the Philippines, so IP fees will be far less in the Philippines than the small fees that apply in the U.S.

Dolby has indicated that it has not registered its AC-3 patents in the Philippines, and consequently, Dolby cannot, and will not, charge patent royalties for products that are manufactured and sold in the Philippines (or on products bought from or sold to other non-patent countries by the Philippines).

The ATSC Standard incorporates the VSB transmission system developed by Zenith Electronics. However, no Zenith patents associated with VSB have been filed in the Philippines (compared to 13 in North America), so there can be no IP license fee associated with the VSB transmission system for products produced and sold in the Philippines.”

Response of the ATSC Forum to the Consultative Document on Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) of the National Telecommunications Commission Department of Transportation and Communications Republic of the Philippines,  October 30, 2006  http://atscforum.org/resources/pressreleases/2006/PR-061030-Response.pdf

2 thoughts on “Don’t Quit – Evolve! ATSC Forum to Close Doors

  1. Hi Rob,

    How does the ATSC Forum demise match up with industry consortium efforts like Silicon Image announcement with Nokia, Samsung Electronics, Sony and Toshiba on mating CE portable/mobile HD with existing HD electronics?

    Do you see a massive shift away from national (US) standards bodies in favor of de facto industry standards? How will this impact the status of the “free” codec movement?

    See:
    http://www.cedmagazine.com/News-Big-CE-firms-link-handsets-HDTV-092909.aspx

  2. Hi Dave:

    The ATSC Forum didn’t lose out in South America to an informal small group of vendors presenting themselves as a broader industry interest. In fact the opposite — multiple high level governments involved.

    Just look at the isdbt.org web site to see what I mean. DTV adoptions and digital transitions everywhere have a very strong, necessary involvement of multiple actors: government, formal industry bodies, and individual companies, and if anything in DTT digital transitions around the world the trend seems more so.

    Rob

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