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U.S. order requires digital TV in 5 years

By Connie Cass | August 9, 2002
Tribune staff reporter

WASHINGTON—Within five years, all but the smallest new televisions must be able to receive digital broadcast signals, federal regulators ordered Thursday.

The decision pushed the TV industry another step closer to the elusive promise of consistently vivid pictures and crisp sound.

Television makers said they would go to court in hopes of blocking the Federal Communications Commission's decision to require digital tuners in sets. The manufacturers said the tuners would add $250 to the price of the average TV even though cable and satellite viewers don't need them.

FCC commissioners, who approved the order 3-1, predicted the cost of tuners would drop dramatically as they are mass produced.

The tuners will become necessary to receive broadcast programming over the airwaves after the nation switches from analog to digital signals, which is expected to happen within a few years.

The FCC wants to ensure that anyone who buys a TV can take it home, plug it in and receive local stations without subscribing to a cable service or buying an extra set-top box for digital signals.

"Someday, analog broadcasting will cease," said FCC Chairman Michael Powell. "When that time comes, consumers will expect their televisions to go on working in the digital world just as they do today."

Consumers with older TVs will be able to buy set-top boxes if they want to receive broadcast stations. The boxes cost several hundred dollars, though the price could fall as demand increases.

Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for the switchover, but the FCC has been frustrated by reluctance of broadcasters, local TV stations, cable systems and television makers to dive into the costly process. When the switch is complete, broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government for other uses, such as wireless telephones.

The vote marked a turning point for the FCC from prodding to ordering action.

The biggest initial beneficiaries of digital television are the 15 percent of TV owners who still receive their shows through antennae. They will get improved reception.

But for cable and satellite subscribers, the greatest benefit of digital transmission is likely to be high-definition television, or HDTV, which offers lifelike sound and picture quality but requires a special TV.

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, predicted the new rule would cost consumers and won't lead to increased availability of HDTV programming.

"It's so easy to whack it to the consumer when the other two pieces of the industry, cable and broadcasters, aren't doing their part," Cooper said.

Local broadcasters, however, responded enthusiastically.

"It's terrific, and it's as it should be," said Emily Barr, president and general manger of WLS-TV.

She said the quality of digital TV is noticeably better, especially HDTV. "The detail is spectacular," she said.

The price has already gone down. Last year, the cheapest digital TVs cost thousands of dollars.

Now you can get one for less than $1,000, said Marc Cook, manager of custom audio-video at the Abt electronics store in Glenview.


Q. What is digital television?

A. It offers sharper pictures and a range of new possibilities. They include sending multiple programs over the same channel, or offering video games, the Internet and other interactive services. The 15 percent of television owners who still receive broadcasts through antennae, rather than by cable or satellite, will get much better reception. Digital also can include high-definition television, or HDTV, the highest-quality television available. Pictures are more than five times sharper than in analog television, which most people receive now, and the sound is better.

Q. What is the difference between digital and analog television, which most people get now?

A. Analog receives signals through electronic waves that are subject to interference from storms or other electric devices. Digital television signals fly through the air as strings of 0's and 1's, the language used by computer programs, and cram more data into the transmission. Some cable systems also transmit digitally.

Q. What do I have to do to get digital television?

A. Purchase a digital-ready television or buy a conversion box for an existing television. The Federal Communications Commission ordered that all television sets 13 inches or larger sold in the United States must come with a digital tuner by July 2007.

Q. What if I do nothing? Will I see any benefit?

A. No. Eventually you may be unable to receive any signals. Not every television station broadcasts digital signals now, but nearly all are expected to do so by 2006. Once that happens, unless you have a tuner or get cable or satellite service, your television will be unable to receive broadcast signals.

Q. What if I subscribe to cable or satellite service? Will I see any change when signals become digital?

A. You may notice some improvement in picture quality. But you need to get an HDTV set to see HDTV pictures.