HDTV and DTV Frequently asked Questions - FCC point of View

Digital Television ("DTV") is a new broadcast technology that will transform television as we now know it. While it will be up to individual broadcasters to determine which services they will make available with DTV, the technology of DTV will allow them to offer free television with movie-quality picture and CD- quality sound and a variety of other enhancements. DTV also will make possible the rapid delivery of large amounts of information services over your television set and will free up valuable broadcast spectrum so that it will be available for other information and communications services.

DTV will present broadcasters with many new options for offering service to the public. Which services are offered will depend upon the broadcasters. With digital television, broadcasters will have the technology available to transmit a variety of data as well as presenting television programs in new ways. This means that broadcasters will be able to offer you an entire edition of a newspaper, or sports information, or computer software, or telephone directories, or stock market updates if they choose to do so. Not only will broadcasters be able to broadcast at least one high definition TV program, they may also, if they choose to, simultaneously transmit several standard definition TV programs. Another possibility is broadcasts in multiple languages with picture and information inserts and in some cases viewers will have the opportunity to select camera angles.

An important additional benefit of DTV is that it will free up parts of the broadcast spectrum for public safety as well as other valuable business uses. This is possible because the modern technology of DTV is more efficient than analog TV technology (what you now have). DTV allows the same number of stations to broadcast using fewer total different channels (less of the broadcast spectrum) which will free up scarce and valuable spectrum. The result is the freeing up of scarce and valuable spectrum for other communications uses. Broadcast spectrum no longer needed by broadcasters will be returned to the government for a variety of uses, including specific allocations to meet the vital communications needs of public safety, police and fire departments.

Digital television will be available to you soon for several reasons. Last year, the U.S. Congress authorized the distribution of additional broadcast spectrum to each TV broadcaster so that they could introduce this new DTV service while simultaneously continuing with their current analog broadcasts. In order to ensure the successful introduction of DTV and to make it available to as many Americans as quickly as possible, the Federal Communications Commission established an accelerated schedule for its introduction. Because of this FCC rule, most Americans are scheduled to have access to DTV by 1999 and everyone in this country is scheduled to have DTV access by the year 2002.

At the same time, it will take a number of years to convert fully to DTV because today's television sets are not designed to receive digital transmissions. In order to provide a smooth transition to DTV service with as little disruption to the public as possible, and as provided in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC granted each existing broadcaster an additional 6MHz channel to be used for digital transmissions. Each broadcaster will also retain its existing channel to continue broadcasting its current analog technology signal during the transition period.

At the end of the transition period -- which is now scheduled for the year 2006 -- broadcasters will be required to surrender one of the two channels. The transition period is subject to periodic progress reviews by the FCC. In addition, last fall Congress included provisions in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 that would extend analog service beyond the 2006 date if certain conditions exist. They include a variety of conditions such as: the failure of one or more of the largest TV stations in a market to begin broadcasting digital TV signals due to causes outside the broadcasters control, or if fewer than 85% of the TV households in a market are able to receive digital TV signals off the air either with a digital TV set or with an analog set equipped with a converter box or subscribe to a cable-type service that carries the DTV stations in the market.

During this transition period, consumers who wish to simply continue receiving only analog tv service will be able to do so. Consumers will be able indefinitely to get service out of their existing television sets, but will not be able to see the DTV broadcasts without a special converter. In order to receive DTV you will have the option of purchasing a converter which can be used with your existing television. You also will have the option of purchasing a digital TV, which will be expensive at first (just as color televisions were very expensive when they were first introduced), but which are expected to become more affordable when DTV is widely available.

The FCC has made clear that its goal in making DTV available to the public is to provide for the success of free, local digital broadcast TV. Broadcasters are allowed to use the channels according to their best business judgment -- as long as they continue to offer a free digital video programming service at least comparable in resolution to the service available today and aired during the same time periods. Broadcasters will be able to put together any package of digital products (including subscription services) which they think will be most productive and efficient. Some of the packages put together by broadcasters may include subscription ("pay") services too.

As far as timing is concerned, the FCC requires that in the top ten markets -- which represents 30 percent of TV households -- affiliates of the top four networks must be on the air with a digital signal by May 1, 1999. In markets 11 through 30 -- representing 53 percent of the country -- by November 1, 1999. Additionally a number of TV stations in the top ten markets have committed to building their digital facilities by November 1, 1998 (in time for the holiday 1998 shopping season).

In order to provide DTV service while continuing to broadcast their analog programs, many television broadcasters may have to modify their transmission towers or construct new towers. Before modifying or building towers, broadcasters may need to get approval from state, city or county governments regarding local zoning, physical engineering, construction, safety and other issues. In addition to zoning issues, your local government has the authority to make sure that any new construction is safe.

Last May, the FCC received a petition from the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television (petitioners) arguing that local zoning regulations may make it impossible for many broadcasters to meet the schedule for the introduction of DTV. They expressed concern that the process of gaining approval from local authorities may take so long that the broadcasters won't be able to modify or construct their DTV towers in time to make DTV available on schedule. As a result, the petitioners asked the FCC to adopt a rule allowing preemption of local regulations and requiring a prompt local review process with federally established time limits.

Wanting input from the public on this petition, on August 19, 1997, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on the matter. In issuing the NPRM, the FCC recognized the need to balance the important federal policy of expediting the implementation of DTV with the importance of being sensitive to the rights of states and localities to protect the interests of their citizens. The FCC made clear that the purpose of the NPRM was to solicit critically important public comment and not to infringe upon state and local rights.

Indeed, the FCC recognizes the importance of state and local authority to protect its citizens. The NPRM described the changes to FCC rules that the petitioner proposed and sought public comment to those changes. Specifically the FCC sought comment on the petitioners' proposal that it adopt a rule preempting local regulations where they interfere with the swift introduction of DTV. The NPRM also asked general questions about the impact of local regulations on the construction of broadcast towers and about the areas where local authority should be protected. Additionally, comments were sought on more specific issues such as whether the FCC should preempt local regulation intended for aesthetic purposes.

Comments were due on the NPRM on October 30, 1997. Reply comments were due December 1, 1997. Comments filed in this proceeding are available to the public in the FCC Reference Center in Room 239, 1919 M St., N.W., Washington, D.C. or by calling International Transcription Service (ITS) at (202)857-3800, a commercial service that researches, retrieves and duplicates FCC documents.

It is important to note that the FCC has not reached any conclusions or made any final decisions on this matter. The NPRM is the beginning of the rulemaking process. The FCC is currently reviewing all of the comments that were filed and making sure all parties are heard. The FCC can either adopt a proposed rule, or some modified version of it, or decide not to adopt the proposal at all.

The Commission is hopeful that the broadcast industry and local governments will be able to develop strategies to achieve workable solutions with DTV implementation. Representatives of the Local and State Government Advisory Committee (LSGAC) established by the FCC have been meeting with FCC staff and with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to attempt to work together to resolve this situation.

FAQ section:

The following questions and answers were compiled by FCC staff to help inform consumers, broadcasters, and local communities and officials, about digital television and DTV implementation. They cover questions about the nature of digital television, how it affects the public, what kinds of changes in services and products it will provide, the schedule for the transition to digital television, the facilities necessitated by the transition to digital television, and the regulation and safety issues raised by new facilities necessary to provide DTV service.

l. What is digital television (DTV) or High Definition Television?

Digital television (DTV) is a new type of broadcasting technology that will transform television as we now know it. Pursuant to Congressional authorization, the Commission has established rules for the transition to this new technology. By transmitting the information used to make a TV picture and sound as "data bits" (as does a computer), a digital broadcaster can carry more information than is currently possible with analog broadcast technology. This will allow for the transmission of pictures with higher resolution for dramatically better picture and sound quality than is currently available, or of several "standard definition" TV programs at once. ("Standard definition" digital TV pictures would be similar in clarity and detail to the best TV pictures being received and displayed today using the current (analog NTSC) broadcast system and TV receivers.) The DTV technology can also be used to transmit large amounts of other data that you may be able to access using your computer or your television set.

2. How will digital television be different than current broadcast television?

With digital television, broadcasters will be able to offer free television of higher resolution and better picture quality than now exists under the current mode of TV transmission. If broadcasters so choose, they can offer what has been called "high definition television" or HDTV, television with theater-quality pictures and CD-quality sound. Alternatively, a broadcaster can offer several different TV programs at the same time, with pictures and sound quality better than is generally available today. In addition, a broadcaster will be able to simultaneously transmit a variety of other information through a data bitstream to both enhance its TV programs and to provide entirely new services. For example, TV programs can be broadcast with a variety of languages and captions, and sports programs can be broadcast so that the individual viewer might select his or her favorite camera angle or call up player statistics, game scores or other information. Broadcasters also will be able to transmit to your television an entire edition of a newspaper, sports information, computer software, telephone directories, stock market updates, interactive educational material and any other information which can be translated into digital bits.

3. Will I still be able to watch my favorite TV programs? Will there be more or different broadcast TV service available with DTV?

Digital television is simply a new way of transmitting programming material. The programming carried depends upon the broadcaster. The programs themselves will not necessarily change, except to the extent that the pictures and sound will be better and a greater variety of effects and enhancements will be possible. Each broadcaster will also be able to offer several programs at the same time through its DTV channel capacity. There is a trade-off between using digital transmission capacity for improved pictures and sound and using it to transmit additional programs. Also, broadcasters will be able to devote some capacity to offering a variety of other information services. The determination of how much capacity to devote to improved pictures and how much to devote to additional programs or other services is up to each broadcaster and their response to viewer demands. In any event, digital broadcasters are required to carry, at a minimum, one video programming stream of visual quality that is equal to or better than that now available on their analog channel.

During the transition to DTV, during which time broadcasters will operate both analog (NTSC) and digital channels, broadcasters will decide which programs to put on which channel, and may decide to "simulcast" programs on both stations (that is, air the same program at the same time on both the digital and analog stations). (Federal rules, in fact, require a certain amount of simulcasting during the transition.) The government has provided for a transition period, until at least the year 2006, during which broadcasters will continue to operate their old analog stations.

4. How will digital television benefit the public?

The advent of DTV will benefit the public because of the improved quality, and possibly quantity, of free television service and the potential availability of much more information on your television set. In addition, one of the most important benefits of DTV is the fact that it will free up parts of the broadcast spectrum and allow its return to the government for other important uses. A part of this additional spectrum has already been designated for public safety, police and fire usage, and other options will be available for other business purposes.

5. Why will more of the broadcast spectrum be available for public safety use? When will it be available?

More of the broadcast spectrum will be available for public safety use by local communities because DTV allows the same number of stations to broadcast using fewer total different channels (less of the spectrum) which will free up scarce and valuable spectrum. Broadcast spectrum that is no longer needed by existing broadcasters will be returned to the government and used for public safety, police and fire departments as well as other uses (including, possibly, additional television channels). This spectrum holds the potential for federal, state and local law enforcement and other safety agencies to share state of the art communications networks to enhance both their individual and their collective effectiveness.

The transition to DTV-only service is currently scheduled for the end of 2006, subject to periodic review an depending on DTV availability. After the transition is complete, broadcasters will be required to return to the government a portion of the spectrum currently used for analog stations, and a portion of that spectrum has already been be allocated for public safety, police and fire usage at that time in the future. Once the Commission makes a final determination as to how to allocate these frequencies to individual users, municipalities, counties, states and qualifying safety agencies will need to go through a licensing process to authorize their use.

6. Will I need a new television to receive DTV?

Not necessarily. During the transition period established for the changeover -- until at least 2006 -- consumers who wish to rely on analog program service can continue to use their existing sets to receive that service, but they will not be able to see the DTV broadcasts without a special converter. Broadcasters will continue to operate their current stations until that time, and consumers will be able to get many more years of service during the useful lives of their existing television sets.

Consumers who wish to keep their existing sets and also want to receive the DTV programming will be able to purchase converters which will allow them to view digital programs on their current sets. The pictures should be clear of the "ghosts" and interference characteristic of analog transmission, although they will not be of the higher DTV picture quality. To receive the full benefits of digital television service, you will need a new digital television set.

7. Are the new digital television sets very expensive?

Just as color television sets were very expensive when they were first introduced, the new digital TVs will be quite expensive at first, with manufacturers concentrating initially on "high-end" models. The price is expected to drop over time, so that by the time DTV broadcasts are available everywhere across the country, digital television sets should be more affordable. In the meantime (and as a permanent alternative) you will have the option of purchasing a converter box which can be used to adapt your current television set for digital use, so that your current television will not be made obsolete. The price of converter boxes is expected to drop below $100 during the transition period to full-DTV service.

8. What will the new digital television sets look like?

New DTV sets will have wider screens than current TV sets, allowing the pictures to be viewed more like those experienced in a movie theater. The wider picture, especially in larger set sizes, is expected to enhance sports and drama viewing, making you feel more involved in the action, as well as rendering more realistic pictures. As with current TV sets, a range of sizes eventually will be available, although initially larger screensize DTV sets probably will be most common. Larger screen size takes greatest advantage of the higher "resolution" of DTV pictures and may better justify the initially high price of the first DTV receivers. The expectation is also that there will be a range of prices that will coincide with a range of picture quality, as with current TV sets.

9. Will I be able to continue receiving regular television?

Regular analog television service, what is broadcast today, will continue until the end of the transition period which currently is set to continue through the year 2006. In addition, a law passed by Congress last fall includes provisions which would extend the time period for continuation of analog service beyond the year 2006 if DTV service and DTV equipment are not as widespread by then as currently expected.

10. Will I need a special new antenna in order to receive DTV over the air?

In general, dependable reception of DTV will require the same type of signal reception equipment that currently works to provide good quality reception of analog TV signals. If you now need a roof-top antenna in order to receive television, the same antenna generally will be needed to receive DTV reception.

11. Why can't there be DTV in addition to the television system we now have?

Congress has determined that the broadcast television service must eventually convert completely to digital transmissions.

In fact, the modern technology of DTV is more efficient than analog TV technology, meaning that it will allow the same number of stations to broadcast more program material using less radio spectrum. This will free up scarce and valuable spectrum for other communications uses. DTV and analog channels, however, cannot operate on the same channel in the same location at the same time. It would be highly inefficient, expensive, and wasteful to allocate spectrum to operate two sets of TV stations permanently, so exclusive service in one method of transmission is necessary, and a determination has been made to provide the public with the superior service possible with DTV. Also, the recovery of spectrum for public safety and other uses depends upon the replacement of analog TV broadcasting with more efficient DTV broadcasts.

12. How long will it take for the conversion to DTV? What is the schedule for conversion to DTV?

The FCC established an accelerated schedule for the introduction of DTV. Pursuant to this schedule, most Americans will have some access to DTV by 1999 and everyone in this country will have DTV access by the year 2002. At the same time, analog service will also continue until 2006. After the end of this transition period, broadcasters will broadcast only DTV.

More specifically, affiliates of the top four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) in the top ten markets must be on the air with a digital signal by May 1, 1999. In markets 11 through 30, the same network affiliates must be on the air by Nov. 1, 1999. All other commercial stations must be constructed by May 1, 2002. Several TV stations in the top ten markets voluntarily have committed to begin digital television service by Nov. 1, 1998.

13. What happens if digital television is not widely available by the end of the transition period?

The transition period to DTV is currently scheduled to end on December 31, 2006. This transition period is subject to periodic progress reviews by the FCC to make sure DTV service is widely available. In addition, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, passed last fall by the Congress, includes provisions that would extend the continuation of analog service beyond the year 2006 deadline if DTV is implemented more slowly than expected. Specific conditions which would extend the transition period include the failure of one or more of the largest TV stations in a market to begin broadcasting digital TV signals through no fault of their own, or fewer than 85% of the TV households in a market are able to receive digital TV signals off the air either with a digital TV set or with an analog set equipped with a converter box or by subscription to a cable-type service that carries the DTV stations in the market.