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Digital TV broadcasts begin

Despite expensive consumer hardware and limited programming, broadcasters are set to throw the switch on digital TV transmissions.

    Despite expensive consumer hardware and limited programming, broadcasters are set to throw the switch on digital TV transmissions as soon as today.

    Broadcasters have been saying that 41 stations from a wide range of U.S. markets will begin next-generation digital broadcasts this month, the early start of a long transition away from analog broadcasts. Affiliates of the four networks in the ten largest markets are required to begin their digital broadcasts by May 1, 1999, and in the top 30 markets by November 1999, as mandated by the federal government.

    Digital broadcasts to smaller markets will make the transition by early in the next decade. With digital technology, broadcasters can offer a high-definition digital TV signal with significantly greater picture clarity and sound quality than traditional analog TVs allow.

    But a government mandate alone is not going to be sufficient to smooth out the transition to digital television. Few consumers own digital TVs, both because of cost and limited availability. Moreover, demand is unlikely to expand much until more digital programming becomes available, according to Kevin Hause, a senior analyst with International Data Corporation.

    "The key reason [for stalled market acceptance] is hardware costs, but limited coverage and content availability" will also play a role, Hause told CNET News.com last month.

    Sorting out the digital TV offerings
    •  HDTV: high-definition television is a subset of digital television formats offering over 1,000 lines of resolution, measured vertically. All HDTVs are capable of displaying material in wide screen or "letterbox" format.

    •  Converter boxes: Most HDTVs are initially going to ship with separate set-tops that receive and decode HDTV signals. Set-tops for displaying signals on regular and SDTVs will account for the majority of hardware shipments in the coming years, IDC said.


    Source: CNET research, IDC

    DTVs sold today come with a separate set-top receiver that can cost between $1,000 and $3,000. The price of the TV and the receiver is $5,000 and up, and only Mitsubishi, Sony, and Panasonic have spelled out strategies for delivering DTVs to retail stores nationwide.

    Meanwhile, there are technical issues such as whether cable operators will carry HDTV signals, and true HDTV broadcasts will be few and far between for the first two years or so. A limited selection of network programs, such as NBC's Tonight Show, and a smattering a sports programs will be the only true HDTV broadcasts.

    Most broadcasts will be traditional low-resolution signals "upconverted" to high-definition digital formats, said Hause. True HDTV pictures have to be filmed with high-resolution cameras in addition to being sent over the airwaves in its original, digital state. Most production crews don't yet have these high-definition cameras.

    Combined, these factors will limit the market's growth to around 13 million DTV units by 2002, IDC says. But by 2007, 138 million HDTV sets and "converter boxes"--devices that can receive a digital signal and display it on either a digital TV or an analog TV--will be sold.

    "This is probably going to be the most economical solution for many people," according to Hause. "They can take advantage of digital signal without spending money to replace that TV," he notes, because an over-the-air signal transmitted digitally will offer better picture fidelity than an analog signal.

    In fact, many cable operators are already offering similar benefits by sending a digital signal through their coaxial cable wires into homes with special set-top receivers.