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Culture

Digital TV gets a step closer

To speed digital TV along, Compaq, Intel, and Microsoft agree to use chips and technology from Lucent and formats favored by the broadcasting industry.

    Lacking support from both television broadcasters and other computer companies for their own digital television standards, Compaq, Microsoft, and Intel will work with Lucent Technologies to speed the deployment of digital television technology in computers and televisions along lines favored by the broadcasting industry.

    Lucent produces chips and other technologies that convert the digital signals from television broadcasters into the various formats that Microsoft, Intel, and Compaq have said they will use.

    Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission adopted formats for the digital broadcast of video and audio that enable higher picture quality than current analog formats.

    The new standard for high-definition television (HDTV) broadcasts is expected to drive the convergence of computers and consumer electronics devices because broadcasters can now send a mixture of video, audio, and data for interactive services such as shopping over the Internet.

    However, broadcasters are likely to send signals in a different format that cannot necessarily be displayed on the majority of PCs.

    Lucent's technology allows the digital signal from television broadcasters to be converted into the formats favored by Microsoft, Intel, and Compaq, according to Ed Roberts, general manager for broadband communications at Lucent. Lucent is a key provider of encoder and decoder chips, or CODECs, that convert signals from analog to digital format, and of other technologies that link PCs to digital networks.

    With Lucent joining the trio to work as a part of the DTV Team, a trade organization, industry observers see a softening of the stance the biggest players in the PC industry were taking on digital broadcasting.

    In April at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, the DTV Team trio said that they would be making millions of PCs capable of receiving broadcasters' digital signals, but that unless the latter used the PC industry's format, they would lose millions of viewers.

    "They made bold statements a few months ago, but they had to tone down [the rhetoric]. The significance of this deal is that Lucent was a member of the grand alliance (that helped define the HDTV standard). It's sort of a detente," according to Jae Kim, an analyst with media research firm Paul Kagan Associates.

    "It's a safe and intelligent move by the PC industry because what they've done is bring in a company that was integral in creating this new class of device," Kim says.

    An official with Compaq says that the DTV Team's strategies have not changed.

    "We have not changed our position in an attempt to persuade broadcasters that there is a broader digital television opportunity," says Steve Goldberg, director of Compaq's DTV effort. Goldberg points to recent news that the Sinclair Group, which owns 29 television stations across the country, will use digital television to offer high-speed data services in addition to free and fee-based programming as a sign that the broadcasting industry is actually moving toward using the standards proposed by the DTV Team.

    Microsoft (MSFT), Intel (INTC), and Compaq (CPQ) had been pushing a format called progressive scanning that is used by computer monitors.

    Television industry executives, on the other hand, want to broadcast digital programming in a format called interlaced scanning, which all of today's televisions use. To change formats en masse would mean the TV broadcasters would give up a tremendous number of viewers. The announcement that Lucent will work with the DTV Team represents a tacit acknowledgment that the broadcasters are likely to have the final say in the matter.

    "We are not surprised by the announcement, since other computer companies were apparently surprised by the strong stand taken by Microsoft, Intel, and Compaq," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesperson for the NAB. "It's been our argument all along that the actual FCC plan is flexible enough to accommodate broadcast and PC industry concerns and that the whole issue of video formats could be accommodated under the FCC rules," he added.

    Lucent's work with the DTV Team could enable the PC companies to bring so-called convergence products to market by the fall of 1998. The first products will most likely be large-screen PC-TV products like Compaq's PC Theater or Gateway 2000's Destination system, and possible Internet access devices similar to WebTV's.