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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Unsung Hero of DTV Transition: Bob Eckert

As we go down the almost final stretch of the change from analog to digital TV, let me talk about a former FCC colleague who had a key role in the basic planning as a result of years of quiet basic technical work in the shadows of FCC.

The basic details can be found on the web at this location for a session at 2004 NAB convention:

Since 1980, Robert Eckert worked for the FCC specializing in matters relating to radio propagation prediction, spectrum efficiency and frequency-assignment algorithms. In the 1990s his work concentrated on HDTV, where he found ways to assign DTV channels within the current TV broadcast bands while minimizing possibilities for interference. Eckert reflects, “I enjoyed working on the computer programs for evaluating candidate allotment tables. These programs took a long time to run – like 10 days – so one long 4th of July weekend I linked up about a dozen FCC Unix computers to run simultaneously to get the answers we needed. I might dare to admit I so enjoyed computer programming that I spent much of those contract-with-America government furlough days working by modem from home to improve DTV allotment table software, possibly in violation of federal law.” His significant work on the current table of digital TV channels earned him the 2003 NAB Engineering Achievement Award.
Bob joined FCC in 1980 working for me in the old Technical Analysis Division of OET's predecessor, the Office of Science and Technology/OST. Then FCC Chief Scientist Steve Lukasik has a lot of unusual background experiences. One of them dealt with the issue of Cold War SIOP planning. SIOP was the name for the planned nuclear retaliation in the Soviet Union when "the balloon went up". In those days of "thinking about the unthinkable" the goal of the SIOP was to maximize the damage of the Soviet Union given a finite number of bombers and missiles and given that "fratricide" between nuclear weapons might reduce the possible damage.

In a real case of "beating swords into plowshares", Lukasik suggested that the mathematical "nonlinear programming" algorithms used to plan the SIOP could be used for the general problem of how to assign frequencies for any type of radio licenses across the country to maximize the number of licenses given constraints for limiting mutual interference. Note that at this time HDTV, let alone DTV, were on no one's agenda and teh topic was not necessarily focused on broadcasting. It was part of an internally generated research idea on how the FCC might do its job better. So around 1980 Lukasik convinced the Commission to spend about $50,000 for a special version of the algorithm used for SIOP planning and gave the assignment to the newly hired Bob Eckert to use the program and find useful applications for it. Soon Lukasik would leave after the arrival of Chairman Fowler and Bob was pretty much on his own in pursuing the project.

Bob's experience, insight and initiative were key in this project. The inisital program showed the benefits of computer frequency assignment. But when the HDTV/DTV issue arose several years later it was clear that the nonlinear programming algorithm was not adequate for the job of planning a whole new gebneration of broadcast stations. Bob was very knowledgeable by this time in this class of algorithms and found out that Bell Labs had developed an "annealing" algorithms (so called because is was similar to the atomic annealing of metals as they were heated). Bob visited Bell Labs to discuss their approach and then came back to FCC to implement it for the DTV project.

The section in the quote above about UNIX computers referred to the fact that FCC had marginal technical computer resources at that time, but had several DEC UNIX workstation computers that were handling large databases as servers. He realized that he could used these resources in off hours to do the huge computations that were necessary to find solutions for making DTV assignments for both during and after the transition. Several years ago Bob told me that no other group was able to do this large computation from scratch and that the broadcast industry submitted alternative allotments all started with plans he had computed. Thus for years Bob worked evenings and weekends from home to harness the FCC's computer resources together to make the DTV allotments.

Bob retired suddenly about 6 years ago when his wife's chronic illness took a turn for the worse and he decided that taking care of her was his top priority. His name still appears from time to time in FCC filings from broadcast interests.

Bob was recognized by FCC in 1997 with the FCC Silver Medal Award. But I always thought it was odd that such distinguished engineering work towards key FCC goals didn't get the Gold Medal - especially when a top OET manager got 2 Gold Medals for DTV work.

Also, this work would not have been possible without the FCC research funding (nonexistent in the past decade) to buy the original software, Bob's dedication to pursue it when their was not specific end project (before DTV), and then the endless overtime he put in to see the project to its success. These days FCC is not trying new approaches like it did in 1980. Hopefully that will change under the new leadership.

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