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Tech Industry

Digital TV standards off to market

The FCC votes to approve a standard for digital, high-definition television broadcasts by letting consumers establish a predominant format.

The future of television is finally cleared for takeoff as the Federal Communications Commission voted late Tuesday to approve a standard for digital, high-definition television broadcasts that will speed up the convergence of computers and consumer electronics devices.

The standard gives manufacturers and broadcasters a set of technical guidelines for rebuilding the nation's airwaves for 19-mbps digital transmission of not only television shows but also digital services.

The standard is also significant for what it doesn't include: codified specifications for displaying video, text, and online information. This means that TV and computer manufacturers eager to build boxes will have room to tinker with screen size, aspect ratio, and scanning--the way lines are redrawn on the screen. Some formats are more amenable to displaying data, while others are better for showing wide-screen films.

"The agreement lets manufacturers experiment, and ultimately, consumers will vote with their pocketbooks," said Saul Shapiro, assistant bureau chief for technology policy at the FCC's Mass Media Bureau.

The approved standard is the result of FCC arm-twisting. Charged with coming up with technical specifications for the next-generation systems, the computer, broadcast, and consumer electronic industries were locked all year in disputes over the video format issues.

Pressured by FCC Commissioner Susan Ness, the industries compromised in November. They adopted most of a standard proposed by a so-called "grand alliance" of consumer electronics makers, but the specifics of video format were left open so that consumers could decide which of the different formats they preferred. One month later, the FCC gave its stamp of approval.

"Our decision...hastens convergence, transporting us into a competitive world of computer-friendly television sets and broadcast-friendly computers," Commissioner Ness said in a statement. "Advanced television sets may access display data as well as video, while computers may receive and process video as well as data, all delivered by broadcast stations."

According to industry manufacturers, the first digital TV sets won't be available until at least 1998, but when they arrive consumers will see sharper pictures and more channels. Consumers will also have to shell out more money, as the first sets are expected to range from $1,000 to $1,500 more than today's analog television sets.

Meanwhile, computer manufacturers can begin to produce PC cards that act as digital TV tuners, said Shapiro. With such cards, computers with MPEG-2 capabilities will be able to receive digital transmissions of data and standard-resolution video as soon as broadcasters turn on their signals.

Several broadcasters have started or will soon start experimental transmission in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon; and New York City, according to Shapiro.

Although the video format issues have been left open, certain technologies have been mandated by the FCC decision. The new digital TV standards include MPEG-2 compression, Dolby AC-3 audio, and Zenith's digital transmission technology called vestigial sideband.

Before widespread digital broadcasts get under way, the FCC needs to allocate channels and forge rules of service. For example, it is unclear if the government will charge fees to TV broadcasters that sell nonvideo services such as online news. The commission hopes to finish the process by April.