HDTV and DTV Frequently asked Questions - FCC point of View
December 21, 2005 at 3:56 AM CST - Updated July 26 at 9:40 PM
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.
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.