Friday, December 18, 2015

My opinion of Digital TV

I think digital TV is a great concept, but is not implemented correctly.

(Update 1/13/2016) I found out from the GNURadio mailing list that the ATSC group is working on a new version of ATSC (version 3) that uses OFDM. The new standard was exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week and will probably solve the unreliability issue.

In 2009, most TV stations in the United States were forced to turn off analog transmitters. In September 2015, the last few stations were told to turn off their analog channels. Cable and satellite are still allowed to use analog, but it's cheaper for them to use digital because they can pack more channels into the same bandwidth.

The government claimed it needed a lot of the old analog channels for mobile broadband (LTE) and public safety communications. It seems to me that TV broadcasters could have just been told, "We're kicking you off the high channels because a cell company offered us a lot of money," and let them keep transmitting analog in their new channels. Analog probably wouldn't have bothered the higher-frequency services. It isn't a "waste of bandwidth" as some say, because in terms of RF bandwidth, digital channels use the same amount (although they do multiplex multiple channels onto it.) Also, it makes no sense to ban analog on low bands like 50 MHz. Cell companies obviously have no use for those bands, so why waste spectrum by outlawing analog transmission in them? I'm pretty sure the ionosphere would never let ATSC work in a band like that.

I seem to remember reading, possibly on the FCC website, about how digital stations have increased coverage because they're more efficient. I even saw a map comparing coverage areas before and after the transition. Anyone who's watched over-the-air digital TV knows that's a lie. Far away, you could get a snowy picture. Even if you couldn't get the picture, the sound on analog was pretty reliable. Now it's all or nothing. If you don't get perfect reception, you get none at all.

But, assuming it was necessary to change to digital, how could things have been done better?

Whoever designed ATSC should have known that VSB (vestigial sideband) was a bad idea. VSB is a form of AM, and we all know AM isn't very reliable in bad conditions. Old analog channels used VSB for the picture and ordinary FM (the same format as broadcast FM) for the sound. I'd love to see digital TV get implemented in ultra-wide FM, maybe 10-20 MHz wide. I'm sure that would make the signal nearly unstoppable, but it would also take up too much spectrum.

We've had since the 1940's to figure out that VSB is prone to issues. Why would we choose it for our digital standard? In Europe they use OFDM for their DVB-T standard. Some say OFDM is better. It's what other services like Wi-Fi use. Wikipedia says it's more reliable in the presence of multipath and bad weather than digital VSB. Multipath is what keeps TV from working in a moving vehicle. And what about passing vehicles? If they reflect the signal just right, the signal will go out. If you look online, you can find a story about a US company that wanted the FCC to give TV broadcasters the choice of OFDM vs digital VSB. The FCC said no, so we're stuck with VSB.

I know analog was great because I remember one rainy day in the mountains with a portable TV. The FM sound came through, but the AM picture was obliterated by the rain.

I'd like to see analog come back as a broadcaster's choice, but that's not likely. It turns out I'm not the only one who wants analog back. Here's what someone commented at http://moronstalkingrubbish.com/dontTurnOffAnalogueTVAust.htm
A small majority of us, here, in the US are currently petitioning our congress to bring back analog since signal interference is caused by trains, snowmobiles, & autos. It's almost 2013 and the dtv has not become better for the millions of lower class who once had reception on functioning equipment.
There are many others online who feel the same way. There are some petitions you can sign online asking the government to allow analog TV again. The higher frequencies are gone to cell companies, but analog in the low bands would still be great. I'd sign them if I thought it would do any good, but if you're interested here are some links:

Petition2Congress: Bring Analog TV Back!!!!!!!
GoPetition: Bring back Analog for the people who can't afford to switch to Digital TV
thepetitionsite: bring back analog TV

Since normal analog TV is probably gone for good, I've come up with some possible digital solutions below. These are in addition to the obvious one of switching to OFDM.


I think TV should be able to "fall back" to analog when the weather is bad. I also like spread spectrum because it allows many users to use the same frequency band and is pretty resilient to interference. I have 2 proposals to implement this:

1. Broadcasters could transmit a standard NTSC signal in their 6 MHz channel and then transmit spread-spectrum digital over it. Of course, 6 MHz is kind of narrow for spread spectrum, but in Europe the TV channels can supposedly be 2 MHz wide, so it might be possible to spread a narrow signal within 6 MHz. This would create some interference to the analog picture, but it would still be watchable. The problem is that there's only one fall-back channel.

2. The best solution would be to use spread-spectrum to multiplex several digital channels onto the same frequency or frequency band (i.e. 902-928 MHz.) It would use CDMA, which is direct-sequence spread spectrum. Sequential spreading codes starting at 0 would be how different channels are tuned in.

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