DIGITAL BROADCASTING

THE GIFT OF DIGITAL TV

Seventy-one percent of adults do not know that broadcasters get access to the airwaves for free. In fact, the 1934 Communications Act gave television broadcasters the right to use that airspace; the cost to broadcasters was an obligation to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity." In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act which gave the new digital spectrum to existing broadcasters for the transmittal of digital broadcast signals beginning in 1998. This $40-70 billion gift from the taxpayers also comes with public interest obligations: "nothing in this [Act] shall be construed as relieving a television broadcasting station from its obligation to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity."

DIGITAL TELEVISION AND THE CONSUMER

In the future, there will be TV shows with links to the Internet, creating an interactive and personalized experience. Viewers will see crystal clear, high definition pictures combined with high fidelity sound. TV sets that receive digital signals will look more like movie screens, wider than they are tall. 

Due to built-in compression technology, digital broadcasting allows more information and data to be aired using less of the spectrum. This allows the space on the spectrum to be used more efficiently and gives broadcasters the option of using their part of the digital spectrum to broadcast one channel of high-definition television (HDTV) or splitting it into four or more standard definition (SDTV) channels. 

The benefits of HDTV's superior technology will be unavailable to many consumers initially because the costs of the new sets are high and current TVs cannot receive the signal without a converter box. Many stations will probably air multiple SDTV channels to maximize their programming and advertising options and to increase their ad income. While both options provide a better picture than current standards, there is a trade-off between the channel quantity and picture quality. These additional channels can be used in myriad ways, from transmitting programs and data to providing forums for public education. 

HOW DOES BROADCASTING WORK?

All types of broadcast communications use part of the electromagnetic spectrum The complete range of frequencies of electromagnetic waves, from the lowest to the highest frequency, includes, in order: radio, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-ray, gamma ray and cosmic ray waves. We receive TV broadcasts over the radio spectrum using antennas and/or coaxial or fiberoptic cables.

Currently, 98% of all U.S. households have television sets, all of which receive analog broadcasts. The difference between digital and analog is the technology of the transmission and the standards for picture resolution. Although the digital spectrum was given away and not auctioned for the public benefit, the radio spectrum currently used for analog broadcasts is set to be returned to the US Government by 2007 and will be auctioned off beginning in 2001. Until the complete conversion, broadcasters will simultaneously use both the digital and analog signals.

Digital television combines broadcast and computer technologies into a powerful new medium that will change the way consumers watch TV. 

In 1996, Congress decided to give the digital spectrum away - for free - to major corporations. This giveaway is estimated to be a $40-70 billion resource. And all the broadcasters owe in return is to "serve the public interest."

Broadcasters have argued that there should only be voluntary guidelines for public interest. NOW Foundation and other civil rights groups are asking for true community access to the public airwaves.