Telecommunications Policy

Digital Doubts

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Every television station in the country is required to shift to digital broadcasting in the next seven years, following broadcast standards developed and approved by the federal government. The broadcast industry is spending billions of dollars to implement the Federal Communications Commission's orders; more than 100 stations reaching 50 percent of the American people now transmit digital signals, and over 100,000 digital TV receivers have been shipped to dealers since August 1998.

The idea is simple enough: Use the government to speed up and coordinate the adoption of the next generation of broadcasting technology.

In January, the Sinclair Broadcast Group performed independent field tests for digital broadcasting in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The result: In many parts of the cities, digital high-definition TV sets received no pictures at all.

Oops.

The problem is with "MultiMate" distortions, which on analog TV sets cause "ghosts"–outlines caused by television signals bouncing off nearby buildings and walls. The new digital standard was designed to be ghost-free, but in many cities it not only got rid of ghosts, but eliminated the pictures altogether.

Another problem: Most cable systems are not technically able to relay the signals, which means that the roughly 60 percent of households with cable will not be able to show high-definition pictures any time soon.

Oops again.

What went wrong? In establishing the new standard, the FCC's field tests evaluated digital TV reception using 30-foot antenna booms on trucks, not the antennas used by most American viewers. And neither the government nor the industry tested digital reception indoors–that is, where most people watch television.

Meanwhile, in each location tested by Sinclair, all the stations could be received by an inexpensive two-inch Sony Watchman. "It is sobering that a Watchman costing less than $100 outperformed digital TV sets costing several thousands of dollars," comments Mark Hyman, Sinclair's head of corporate relations.

So what happens next? Sinclair and some other broadcast groups want the FCC to amend the digital standard. But so far the commission, like all too many high-definition TV screens, is silent.

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