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FCC sounds firm note on digital TV

Chairman William Kennard urges attendees to embrace a new era of digital television--because it's coming whether they like it or not.

LAS VEGAS--In one of the most eagerly anticipated keynotes of this week's National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard urged attendees to embrace a new era of digital television--because it's coming whether they like it or not.

In his first speech to the association as FCC chairman, Kennard covered a wide range of broadcast industry concerns but focused specifically on digital TV.

"The conversion to digital should be about competition because digital gives you...new ways of competing in the marketplace," Kennard said.

The possibilities include sending a combination of video, audio, and data for interactive services like shopping to PCs and other computer-like information appliances. "I believe that the digital conversion will be much, much more than pretty pictures. It will be broadcasters entrée into world of broadband access to the home," Kennard said.

A number of hurdles remain before such services can become a reality, but the FCC appears ready to take an active role in pushing the transition. The industry may need some prodding on this front: In the opening keynote yesterday, NAB chairman and CEO Edward Fritts expressed concerns about cable companies reluctant to carry digital TV signals.

Kennard himself has had little time at the helm of the FCC during a period of "accelerating change," as he put it. In October of last year, Kennard succeeded Reed Hundt, with whom he worked closely while he was legal counsel to the FCC. But Kennard, who started his career 15 years ago as a lawyer working with the NAB, isn't wasting any time in pushing the broadcast industry to go digital.

Kennard reemphasized that the FCC will vigorously enforce the mandated transition to digital television while remaining flexible enough to relax rules in special circumstances. Under the timetable adopted by the FCC last year, major network affiliates in the ten largest markets must offer digital television signals by May 1, 1999. Smaller markets will need to be online with digital TV by November of 1999, with all remaining commercial stations converted by the year 2002.

At a later panel session, FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani explained that digital TV broadcasting will refine broadcasters? public service requirements, sometimes called must carry regulations. "Must carry" refers to legal rulings that cable companies are required to send local broadcasting signals to customers.

It is not clear yet how these rulings will apply to digital programming because of the variety of signals that will be transmitted, each occupying varying degrees of the cable company's overall channel capacity.

When broadcasters aren't sending high-definition signals, they could send several lower-quality channels in its stead to make substantially more public-service air time available. But exactly what kinds of signals the cable companies will be required to carry is not yet known. Also, broadcasters may themselves be sending more channels in lieu of the highest definition signals, and it is unclear how many channels the cable companies would have to pass through their systems to consumers.

"During the transition to digital, you may have broadcasters that are multi-channel, and one of the questions would be, 'Does public interest touch each channel?'" she asked. Also, with the possibility of interactive broadcasting, such as links to Internet content, Tristani said there may be new opportunities to serve public interest requirements.