Avram's Past / broadband / Government / Intel / Old Media / Technology

Avram’s Congressional Testimony on HDTV 1998

It is hard to imagine that just only fifteen years ago, we still had not settled on the HDTV standards let alone deployed HDTV.  Flat panel TV’s were just being introduced.  I got my first a year later.  It was 42 inches and did not have enough resolution to display HDTV and cost close to $5,000.

The  House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection convened a 2 1/2 hour meeting to discuss HDTV standards and deployment issues on April 24, 1998. I was invited to give testimony.   The panel was made up of a  large group of executives representing the consumer electronics, the television broadcast and the cable industries.  In addition there were two representatives from the computer industry, Bob Stearns from Compaq and me, from Intel.  The chair was Billy Tamzin, a republican who later went on to make a fortune as a lobbyist.  The ranking member from the democrats was Ed Markey (now running for the Senate in MA).   Stearns and I had a couple of objectives.  While most of  the panel saw a TV, we saw a Monitor.  We understood that with that if we could achieve  high resolution and progressive scan, the HDTV set of the future could serve as a monitor for computers.  Just like the  CD and DVD, the consumer industry do the R&D and and manufacturing  of important and innovative products which the computer industry would “highjack” for its own use. Everyone one on the panel had their own agenda and often it was a secret agenda. By the way, the guy who is looking is staring at me in the photos is Chase Carey the current COO of News Corp.

Here is my testimony followed by my friend, Bob Stearns.

Digital TV and Compression

 Back then TV transmission was still analog.  The majority of American homes no longer received TV over the air but instead they got TV content via cable including the so called Broadcast Networks. The move to Digital Television which allowed an ever greater number of television channels to be squeezed to a given amount of spectrum (bandwidth) had begun. It  all started when John Malone declared the 500 channel Universe at a cable industry show in 1992.  The bandwidth needed for HDTV required digital compression.  One HDTV channel was the equivalent of four normal resolution channels.  Digital Compression was first introduced by Direct TV who had a needed to get as many channels into their limited spectrum.  The cable industry was looking to eventually distributed HDTV. By using digital compression, they could get between 1-2 HDTV channels in the same 6 meg hertz bandwidth normally used for standard definition analog TV channel.  They soon realized that they could also squeeze between 4-10 standard definition channels into the same space depending on the quality that they would be willing to offer consumers.  This turned out to be very important to Malone because TCI had one of the worst cable plants . This way they could avoid the cost of upgrading the plant by using digital compression to offer more channels with the same old bad quality.

A six mega hertz channel was converted to what was called 64 Quam.  It was a packet structure and could be used for a combination of HDTV and standard TV.  It was this technology that we hijacked to create the downstream portion of the Cable Modem.  We could turn an analog TV channel into about 30 mbits which between a number of homes.

Open Set Top Box

The consumer electronics companies represented on the panel were interested in finding away to let consumers buy set top boxes directly from retail instead of getting them from the cable companies. For instance,  Sony really wanted to be able to offer set top boxes direct to consumers that would integrate capabilities like DVDs.   The cable Companies did not want this top happen.  Even Circuit City was represented at this hearing.

Cable companies wanted to keep the set top boxes proprietary for a number of reasons.  The charged customers $5-$10 a month for equipment that was not only cheap to make but keep in service for many years.  In fact they are still doing this.  They would claim that they needed to control the set top box to make sure that consumers were not able to access content they had not paid for.  I was amazed to hear the representative from Time Warner Cable say that they were working hard to create an open standard for Set Top Boxes when I knew they  were doing everything they could to prevent it.
The cable companies are promoting that they would open the set top box market and provide interactivity.  There were only two major manufactures of set top boxes in the USA, the Jerold Division of General Instruments (now owned by Google) and Scientific Atlanta (now owned by Cisco).  They were tightly controlled by the Cable Industry.

Broadcasters were concerned about the cost of HDTV and the Digital transition.

The major networks were concerned about the cost of both creating and distributing HD content.  They really wanted to slow things down.  Only PBS seemed to be aggressively pursuing the concept of Digital Channels and HDTV.  But the government wanted to reclaim the spectrum which they provide free of charge to Broadcasters.   It was a battle that went on for more than a decade.


I wanted to make sure that nothing would happen to interfere with the possibility of interactivity over cable.  Interactivity required a return channel  (upstream) which was actually the most difficult part of getting cable broadband access done.  While the Cable Industry was buying into the concept of Internet Broadband for home computers, they did not want this to creep into the TV area.  They wanted to be able to control TV interactivity just like they controlled TV content.  By this time, I knew them well enough to know that they were not capable of pulling this off but saw no reason to rub this in.  Instead, during the Q&A session, I gave an example of the kind of interactivity that I thought the cable industry and TV industry would find exciting.  You can view those comments here.

It is strange that now 15 years later, the kind of interactivity I was referencing still has not happened other then what is now called “second screen” where a companion device like and iPad or iPhone is used in conjunction with the TV.


Here is a link to the full session.

This is the formal statement that was entered into the record.  My actual remarks at the hearing are more interesting, in my opinion.

Statement of Avram Miller Vice President, Business Development Intel Corporation Before the House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection
April 23, 1998: Hearing on Digital Broadcast Television

Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee:

I thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today to discuss the issues surrounding development and deployment of digital broadcast technology to American households during the next few years. In the interest of brevity, I summarize below the major points I wish to make regarding the promise that this technology holds for consumers of both traditional television programming and interactive data and media services and products.

We at Intel are persuaded that digital broadcasting win be a key element of growth in the computer industry, worldwide. It will serve as a carrier for enhanced television (video and data) as well as Internet services and products. As such, it will have a significant role to play in making interactive media a widely dispersed facility, available to a broader range of consumers than it is today. Every Internet user will benefit from expanded services — and that is the principal reason we are involved in this effort.

From the perspective of manufacturers and retailers of computers, digital broadcasting will expand the market for a wide range of computing platforms. It represents new applications for computing technology and a widely expanded base of new users. For Intel in particular, HDTVs high resolution displays will require high performance microprocessors to bring the full benefits of the technology to the screen.

Intel has fully supported the work of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) that has diligently pursued the development of coherent and comprehensive standards for deployable digital broadcasting technology:  

We have participated in the following ways:

– Defining technical specifications

– Integrating All Format Decoding (AFD) protocols into hardware

– Developing a variety of Intel Architecture based platforms that will be able to receive and decode broadcast video and data in all formats

– Ensuring the ability of broadcasters to deliver interactive video and data

– Developing Intercast technology and tools which allow the insertion of data into the broadcast stream (VBI). We have worked closely with broadcasters on this for the past three years.

We have also been involved in cross-industry efforts designed to facilitate a smooth transition from existing analog technology to the digital formats. Aside from embracing and advocating the AFD protocols, we have also sought to ensure the maximum possible ease of transition for broadcasters in the following ways:

– Ensuring that broadcasters will be able to exercise “Edge to Edge” screen control (allowing use of the entire screen to display content and brand information).

– Developing, through the Open Digital Content Initiative, “create once” standards that will allow one iteration of the digital data to be sent through multiple transports (satellite, cable, terrestrial) to play on any platform (desktop, set top box, PC, or TV).

– Facilitating the migration of existing video and data programs that are interactive from analog to digital formats (which will occur as broadcasters begin to deploy digital television market trials).

– Working with key broadcasters to facilitate trials. We have recently announced a cooperative program with PBS in which Intel will work to supply technical resources required for trials of digital broadcast of PBS educational content.

– Working to accelerate deployment of high bandwidth Internet connections through our advocacy of Universal Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) technology, which allows high speed communications over existing copper telephone fines. ADSL will require specialized modems and switches at the terminus points of the connection, and in the transmission facilities. Telecommunication providers are the key to deploying this technology.

– Working with the Cable Industry to advance the implementation of these relatively lower cost solutions to the bandwidth problem so that PC’ s connected through cable facilities will be able to process more data than present technology would permit.

Certainly, difficult issues have at times divided the disparate parties involved in this complex development process. The issue of formats has been particularly mettlesome; the PC industry can support all 18 of the standard formats, but progressive display offers the best balancing of economics and “program acceleration”. It is clear that future digital television market segments will require data-enhanced programming.

Our goal is to serve the consumer of interactive video and data services. Digital broadcasting is not just a means to give the consumer advanced picture quality; it also presents an unparalleled opportunity to dramatically enhance Internet content and services for the public The key to success in this goal is the cooperative working relationship we are forging between broadcasters, the computing industry, and telecommunications providers.

To that end, our program has aimed at eliminating uncertainties (technical, product, and business issues) thereby enabling the development of the technology and its market. By serving as a bridge across industries (computing, television broadcast, consumer electronics, telephone and cable) and working diligently to develop “universal” standards that address the complex interoperability problems, we are succeeding in moving digital broadcasting closer to reality.

Intel has been driven by one objective: providing the consumers – “netizens”, students, parents, and small business owners — with a truly advanced technology which brings together the converging worlds of computing and interactive video and data, and which offers the highest quality of performance achievable, given the need for an orderly are moving steadily transition from existing analog technology. We believe that we toward the accomplishment of that objective.


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