[ text version ]

Remarks of
Commissioner Susan Ness
"DTV in the Desert" Symposium
Consumer Electronics Show
Las Vegas, Nevada

January 8, 1998

(as prepared for delivery)

Thanks, Don, for that kind introduction and thank you all for that warm welcome.

Ron Brown, the late Secretary of Commerce, used to say, "There are only two kinds of lunch speeches: those that are too long . . . and those that aren't short enough."

Today, I'll try not to prove him right.

But I do want to begin with a short story. It fits with the title of today's symposium -- "DTV in the Desert."

Seems there once was a traveller who was crossing the desert when his car died. Fortunately, he was just outside a monastery. He persuaded the monks to sell him a mule so that he could complete his journey.

The monk explained that the mule was raised in the monastery, and as a result it only understood religious commands. The command for "go," said the monk, is "thank heaven." To go faster, he told the traveller, you need to say "Thank heaven! Thank heaven!" And to stop, you should say "Amen."

So the man mounted the mule and said, "thank heaven." Sure enough, the mule began to move. Wanting to go faster, the man said "Thank heaven! Thank heaven!" and the mule sped along at a faster clip.

Emboldened by his success, the man decided to increase his speed, and so he said, "Thank heaven! Thank heaven! Thank heaven!" -- and the mule took off like lightning. But suddenly, to his horror, the man saw that they were rapidly approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

"Stop! stop! stop!" he yelled -- to no avail. Just as the animal's hooves reached the edge of the precipice, he remembered to scream, "Amen!" Miraculously, the mule stopped -- right at the edge. "Whew," said the traveller, "thank heaven!"

Well, turning to the theme of this symposium -- and perhaps of this CES -- I want to say "thank heaven" that digital television is galloping along! And there is no gaping chasm in sight! We are moving in the right direction and at a good pace.

For ten or more years, you have been hearing about, talking about, anticipating, or working on advanced television. First we called it HDTV and then DTV, but all along the goal has been to create an entirely new viewing experience.

1998 is the key year. After all the work in the labs, in the standards committees, on the test beds, etc., this is the year DTV becomes a commercial reality. It's not a mirage in the desert.

This is the year broadcasters will be busy building their digital stations and devising their programming strategies. This is the year manufacturers will be building and delivering the necessary equipment to do the job. And this is the year retailers will seek to educate the public about the value of digital television -- and to persuade them to part with their hard-earned dollars to acquire this exciting new technology.

It's timely to assess how we got here, and what remains to be done.

As you may recall, in 1996 there was a delay while the issue of standards was debated. Manufacturers, broadcasters, and computer interests were engaged in a contentious argument on the question of whether the Commission should mandate a DTV standard -- as many of you recommended -- or just leave it to the marketplace to sort out. The Commission itself was divided on the subject.

My view was that conversion from analog to digital would be more lengthy, more costly, and less certain if manufacturers hesitated to invest in digital equipment because of marketplace confusion. And thanks to the good work that many of you did, the logjam was broken, and that view prevailed.

Just one year ago, the FCC adopted the vibrant, flexible, industry-recommended standard for digital television transmission. Adopting the standard provided certainty so that industry and consumers would invest in digital equipment.

Indeed, this convention's exhibit halls attest to the wisdom of adopting that standard. Everywhere we look, we can see equipment for studios, stations, and homes. Television sets and computers alike will be equipped with chips designed to work with the standard.

Theory is becoming reality. This is the year in which stations will begin DTV broadcasting in the top markets throughout the United States.

At the time of the debate on standards, one major issue was whether interlace or progressive scanning was better for broadcasting high definition programs, and whether both approaches would be supported in consumer products. That uncertainty was removed with Intel's recent demonstration that all formats can be affordably incorporated in its multimedia computer chip sets.

As a result, later this year, consumers in many key markets will be able to watch digital television over their TV's, their PC's, or their PC/TV's. And consumers will have access to a wide variety of data services, delivered over these same devices. We will be able to watch video programming from the Internet, read our e-mail, or obtain more information about an advertised product. Convergence is here.

One year ago, it was uncertain whether broadcasters would use their DTV spectrum to deliver true high definition television, or only to deliver multiple streams of lower resolution programming.

Since then, the major networks have reaffirmed their intention to transmit high definition programming during prime time. Cable channels such as HBO and Discovery, among others, also intend to regularly transmit programming in high definition.

DirectTV -- which already broadcasts digitally from its satellite -- demonstrated last evening its own ability and its intention to transmit in full high definition. This means that viewers anywhere in the nation will have access to some HDTV. The cable industry has made clear that its "open cable" devices will accommodate high definition.

I welcome theses developments. It is my view that, once people see high definition, they will be captivated.

The trends are promising. Today, few people elect to watch black and white television. Why should they, when a vastly richer experience is available?

For several years now, consumers have been buying increasingly larger television screens, and integrating their TVs, VCRs, and sound systems. As advances in technology reduce the cost of flat screens, I have no doubt that we will see an explosion in the popularity of true home theater.

I am equally enthusiastic about the prospects for new supplemental and ancillary services. DTV offers a fat "pipe" for the transmission of bits -- not just video and audio but text and data.

It is a misconception that ancillary data services and high definition video are mutually exclusive. Both can be accommodated simultaneously.

The number of bits needed to transmit a program in high definition constantly varies. Even with full high definition, there is a substantial number of "unused" bits that can be deployed to transmit huge quantities of information.

And even during a high definition broadcast of a live sporting event -- a pro football game, for example -- there is sufficient "opportunistic" capacity to transmit the entire Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times within a matter of minutes. The excess capacity, while varying each instant, is many megabytes each minute.

And the amount of data that could be downloaded while you are sleeping is simply mindboggling -- almost as many as the grains of sand in the Nevada desert.

What will broadcasters do with all this capacity? Fortunes will be earned or lost in coming up with the answers to that question.

I believe that the digital bit-stream will be in high demand, and that consumers will benefit from a whole new array of services designed to use this capacity. Let's not forget that the storage capacity of home computers was measured in kilobytes or megabytes a few short years ago. Today, memory is measured in gigabytes.

Next stop, terrabytes!

Another misconception is that broadcasters must elect to transmit in high definition or in standard definition. This is not true, because the receiver will decode whatever the broadcaster is transmitting at any given time.

So, after using the entire channel for a high definition telecast of a live pro-football game, a station could switch to sending -- simultaneously -- two high-definition movies -- which can withstand greater compression because they are not being transmitted live -- or multiple standard definition channels for news, children's programming, and entertainment.

I foresee a competitive marketplace with a variety of digital programming and data alternatives, including high definition broadcasts. This time next year, sports bars in major cities will be featuring the Superbowl in awesome, state-of-the-art high definition.

One year ago, broadcasters assumed that they had a leisurely fifteen years in which to complete conversion from analog to digital broadcasting and to return the analog channel to the government.

But last May -- working with broadcasters and equipment manufacturers -- the Commission adopted a far more aggressive, but still realistic, DTV rollout schedule. Multiple stations in the top ten markets volunteered to be on-air in digital within eighteen months -- by the Christmas '98 shopping season. This audience, of all people, understands the importance of a fall introduction.

Our roll-out schedule requires network affiliates in the top thirty markets to be broadcasting in digital by Christmas of 1999. That will serve well over fifty percent of the U.S. population. In addition, many broadcasters outside of the top thirty markets plan to initiate digital broadcasts.

We at the FCC are working hard to complete our remaining tasks.

Most immediately, there are channel allotment issues that must be put to rest. Who gets which channels? At what power levels? How much interference is acceptable? How much variance in NTSC and DTV service areas can be tolerated?

We dealt with these issues once, but -- naturally enough -- a number of broadcasters have asked for changes in our order. We need to provide answers, we need to provide them ASAP -- by which I mean by the end of this month -- and we are on track to do just that -- so that everyone can get on with the rollout.

Another lingering issue is antenna siting. One year ago, broadcasters were anxious about the ability to locate their digital antennas due to tough zoning restrictions. That remains a concern today.

Fortunately, progress is being made. Recently, following a meeting of the FCC's local government advisory committee hosted by the NAB, it was suggested that a task force be established to work directly with jurisdictions to resolve siting issues. I applaud the advisory committee for this "constructive" suggestion. I propose that we move ahead without further delay.

Another important concern is the survival of low-power television stations during the period of transition from analog to digital. I for one recognize that low power stations offer a diversity of programming for the local market. Many of these stations will necessarily be forced off the air during the transition period. But we must take steps to maintain these valuable voices in the marketplace, to the extent we can do so without impairing full power stations.

Another important and thorny area for future consideration is the "must-carry" requirement governing cable carriage of broadcast signals. In 1996, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the must-carry requirement. Now, we are called upon to decide how the requirement should apply to digital broadcast signals.

Some broadcasters argue that all their programming should be carried on cable, whereas some cable operators counter that they should be required to carry only one program stream from each broadcaster.

My mind is still open on these issues, but I will share two preliminary thoughts with you:

First, I would be reluctant to mandate carriage of programming that duplicates cable networks. For example, if a broadcaster is also transmitting say, CNN, Fox News, or CNBC, with part of its bitstream, I don't see why we should mandate cable carriage if the network is already offered on the cable system.

Second, I think cable should be required to pass through broadcast programming in high definition if it is broadcast in that manner.

These and other issues relating to the relationship between broadcasting and cable will be complex. The stakes are large, but broadcasters and cable operators can and must work together to develop workable solutions.

The Commission is scheduled to examine these issues, starting next month. I will look forward to your comments.

Despite these unresolved matters, it is clear that a new era has begun.

One year ago, the fate of digital television was in the Commission's hands. Now the torch has been passed back to you -- the manufacturers, retailers, broadcasters, and consumers. The success of DTV is largely in your hands.

My primary concern about the transition is in securing a smooth rollout for the consumer. Let us not forget that the public will be faced with the recognition that existing television sets will become obsolete without the addition of a decoder or a cable or satellite set-top box.

If this conversion is to proceed smoothly, the public must appreciate the value of this new service. Confusion must be minimized -- where there is marketplace confusion, there is consumer hesitation. And I hope they will find access to DTV capabilities to be within their means. It's important that a critical mass be established as soon as possible. The more sets there are to receive DTV programming, the more programming will be transmitted in digital format.

You know your business -- how best to roll out digital television to capture the largest audience. I know you are committed to do your best to ensure that all Americans can enjoy and participate in the digital revolution.

As we see here today at this convention, all the industries involved are working diligently to make rollout of digital television a success. While there remain thorny issues to be resolved, both for the industries and for the government, I want to commend you for all the hard work to date; and encourage your continued efforts to make this ambitious transition to digital smooth and consumer friendly.

And now, if you'll all just say "Amen," I'll stop.