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Static continues for digital television

As digital television broadcasting approaches its first anniversary in the United States, yet another tussle over technical standards is raising questions over whether it will ever get off the ground.

As digital television broadcasting approaches its first anniversary in the United States, yet another tussle over technical standards is raising questions over whether it will ever get off the ground.

This week, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 58 television stations reaching about 24 percent of U.S. homes with televisions, submitted a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would effectively make current DTV equipment, including expensive DTV sets, obsolete if adopted.

Sinclair asked the commission to allow broadcasters to transmit DTV signals using a technology in widespread use in Europe. Because that technology is different from the one broadcasters started using in November of 1998, DTV's official rollout, the small group of consumers who laid out money for sets costing upwards of $5,000 last year would have to buy new equipment to receive programming.

Sinclair said there's good reason to change the standards in midstream, though. The company discovered during real-world tests conducted at 40 sites in Baltimore, Maryland, that DTV sets have a hard time receiving signals in urban areas dense with high-rises and on the fringes of reception areas.

The problem: When signal reception is poor, a regular analog TV gets a fuzzy picture, but a DTV screen can go blank altogether if there's too much missing data.

Sinclair couldn't be reached for comment.

Findings are questioned
TV makers are disputing Sinclair's findings, however, and the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) asked the FCC to dismiss the petition outright.

Reconsideration at this point would cause confusion among consumers, who would likely shy away from investing in DTV sets, CEMA said. Additionally, Sinclair's concerns were addressed during the standards process, and now TV stations have invested $300 million in transmission equipment already.

"To revisit the standard now would cause inevitable delays and threaten the future of DTV," CEMA president Gary Shapiro warned in a statement.

"It has taken two years with the standard we have to bring products to market that finally are affordable to buy. A revision such as the type Sinclair is discussing would add cost and add time to develop new products," said Dave Arland, a spokesman for Thomson Consumer Electronics. Thomson makes products under the RCA and ProScan brands, among others.

So far, it doesn't sound like the FCC is interested in restarting a DTV standards debate. In a report, FCC engineers said the current technology standard should be retained, while noting that there are instances where signal reception will be impaired.

Improvements to technology could also answer Sinclair's points, said Sid Shumate, a consultant and appraiser for BIA Media, who said the company raises valid points. BIA Media offers financial consulting and investment banking services to station owners.

There are areas where the current technology doesn't work as well as the European standard, said Shumate, but new chips from Motorola and others are expected to help DTV sets tune in better.

Consumers accepting DTV--slowly
Arguably, consumers haven't been beating down the doors to get a DTV set anyway. About 120,000 DTV sets will be sold before the end of 1999, according to CEMA. That number should rise to approximately 600,000 in 2000, though, as costs on sets go down. The entry level sets now cost around $2,800, about the same as an analog big screen TV, while offering better picture quality.

Those who do have sets haven't been complaining about reception, said Tom Campbell, spokesman and member of the board of directors for Ken Crane's Home Entertainment, a chain of high-end electronics store in the Los Angeles, California, area.

"Not one customer has returned a set because they can't receive a DTV signal," Campbell said. Their chain of eight stores have sold over 1,000 high definition DTVs to date, he noted. Campbell noted that in his home, he gets a DTV signal where his regular TV needs a connection to the cable company to receive a picture.