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The Transition to Digital

It is often argued that the 1996 Telecommunications Act grant to existing broadcasters six megahertz (6 MHz) of spectrum for digital transmissions is only a loan, and that broadcasters will give the spectrum they currently use for analog transmission back to the government in 2006. Here is the schedule:

5/1/99: Network affiliates in the top ten markets must broadcast in digital.
11/1/99: Network affiliates in markets 11 through 30 must broadcast in digital.
5/1/00: All other commercial stations should be broadcasting in digital.

But this is not at all certain.

In 1997, the broadcasters were allowed to keep their old spectrum beyond 2006 if 1) a TV station in the same market has not begun televising digital signals, and 2) if fewer than 85 percent of the households in the area are unable to receive digital signals. Few expect the broadcasters will be forced to give up the spectrum they now use to broadcast analog signals.

Other facts are also uncertain about DTV, such as just what will the broadcasters transmit. Broadcasters may broadcast one high definition television (HDTV) signal with movie-like quality and dimensions, or it may send as many as five digital standard definition television (SDTV) signals. SDTV is not as sharp as HDTV, but it is superior to current analog broadcasts. In addition, broadcasters may also send new kinds of transmissions, such as data transmissions, teletext, interactive personal communications services, and even separate audio programs. Broadcasters will also be able to distribute computer software, and send scrambled signals for subscription or pay-per-view programs.

Not even the transmission format has been settled, broadcasters have yet to decide whether they will broadcast a scanning format closer to the computer screen standard—progressive scanning, or Interlaced scanning—which is used by other nations.

The future of digital is still in the making, including those rules to ensure that digital broadcasters serve the public interest.

1See:Federal Communications Commission, "FCC Releases Digital Television Consumer Bulletin," November 16, 1998

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