Forcing digital TV on public

Switch: An FCC ruling will make almost every set in the nation obsolete within a decade.

August 15, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

At least one piece of household technology has yet to become a full-fledged player in the digital revolution: the television set.

But last week, the Federal Communications Commission took its most forceful action in that direction since Congress decided that over-the-air television signals should go digital.

The commission ruled that TV manufacturers must include tuners that receive digital signals in every television with a 13-inch screen or larger after June 30, 2007. Beginning in July 2004, at least half of all large-screen televisions sold must have the DTV receiver.

The goal: to send the decades old analog TV set into oblivion, along with the rotary phone and vinyl records.

But the parties involved can't agree on how much money and inconvenience the change will cost consumers - or whether the benefits outweigh the pain.

Consumer advocates argue that viewers have never demanded DTV, even though it promises improved pictures and sound. In fact, 85 percent of American households pay to get their television signals though cable or satellite services, which don't require the new tuners. That means everyone buying a TV will have to pay for technology that only 15 percent actually use.

The two TV makers who own patents on the new digital technology support the switch, but the rest of the industry opposes it. Its trade organization, the Consumer Electronics Association, said it will appeal the FCC ruling and sue, if necessary, to block it.

Broadcasters applaud the FCC, saying it's about time they got help after spending hundreds of millions on equipment to transmit digital signals that only a few viewers can watch.

Spectrum swap

Why the fuss? Analog TV and DTV work on different principles and operate on a different set of radio frequencies (known in the trade as "spectrums"). Under a deal struck in the mid-1990s, Congress gave broadcasters the DTV spectrum free of charge under the condition that it return the current analog spectrum after the switchover.

DTV, which is broadcast as a pattern of ones and zeros, can't be received by today's analog sets. But it can provide a much higher resolution image and sound in a single broadcast (known as high definition or HDTV) or multiple programs at lower resolution in the same bandwidth.

So far, the public isn't buying. Only 3 million digital-ready televisions have been sold altogether, compared to 25 million analog sets a year. Consumers who want to watch today's limited digital broadcasts have two choices: a DTV for $850 or more, or a digital tuner (starting at $400) that can be hooked up to an analog set.

Broadcasters are reluctant to produce more digital programming if nobody's watching, and television makers say they can't sell DTVs if there's nothing to watch. So the FCC stepped in.

"I have mixed feelings on this. It's a hell of a good thing on one side - the government's been fiddling around for 20 years on this thing," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications in Bethesda. "But it's going to be a painful transition."

The average set lasts about 11 years, Arlen noted, but the average viewer doesn't toss out an old set when he buys a better one - he moves the old one to a bedroom, away from the cable box, where it tunes in the free analog signal. "Over the next 10 years, the old ones will be obsolete," he said.

Moreover, most viewers today aren't watching over-the-air television most of the time, thanks to cable and satellite penetration.

"Free TV is history," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. Yet, cable and satellite subscribers will have to pay for digital tuners in their TVs.

"Since they [broadcasters] got the gift of spectrum, why don't they pay for the tuners?" Cooper asked.

Even the cost is open to debate. The Consumer Electronics Association says digital tuners will add $250 to the cost of a set. The National Association of Broadcasters says it's closer to $16. They do agree that the cost will drop with mass production.

`No one wants digital'

Broadcasters grumble that they're already carrying the burden of the switch. About 450 of the nation's 1,600 stations offer digital signals in addition to analog. The FCC's move is a "huge step forward," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "We've got stations all over the country sending DTV signals out there - the problem is getting signals to consumers."

Without the FCC push, he said, not much would happen.

Wharton also argued that over-the-air TV is more popular than it appears. Combining homes without cable or satellite service with those where secondary sets use regular antennas, closer to 20 percent of U.S. households watch free television, with three in 10 TVs getting pictures through the air. That's enough, he said, to require DTV tuners in every television.

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