The arrival of digital television promises to be one of the most significant developments in television technology since the advent of color television in the 1950's. DTV has the capability to provide clearer and sharper, cinema-like pictures as well as multi-channel, CD-quality sound. It can provide new uses such as multiple video programs or other services on a single television channel, including data services. The use of DTV technology will also allow television to enter the digital world of the personal computer and the Internet.
As with any major technology change, it will be important for consumers to understand the capabilities of new equipment in order to make purchase decisions. The new digital television sets will have many new features and technical characteristics that will vary somewhat between different models and manufacturers. In addition, special features may be needed when using DTV sets to receive programs from cable, direct satellite, or other video service providers.
This bulletin has been prepared to provide consumers with information on the new DTV technology, its upcoming deployment, and the capabilities and features that are expected to be available in the new DTV sets.
- Why change today's TV system to DTV?
Today's television system has served the American public well for almost three generations. Over the years, additional features and functions, such as color, stereo sound, remote control, cable channels, closed captioning, and parental control features were developed. Even with these improvements, TV sets became less expensive and more affordable.
However, today's television system is now showing its age. A transition to digital is occurring in all media technologies. Direct broadcast satellite providers, for example, have offered digital service since their inception. In contrast, the shortcomings of the 50-year-old analog technology used by broadcasters -- such as limited resolution and color rendition as well as problems with "ghosts" and interference from other radio sources -- have become increasingly apparent as consumer TV sets have become larger and more technologically advanced.
Therefore, at the request of the television broadcast industry, the FCC sponsored an effort to investigate the possibility of significantly improving the technical quality of today's television system.
More than 10 years ago, scientists and engineers in the broadcast, cable, and consumer electronics industries and in government worked on the development of this new television system. Many different approaches were developed and tested. Today's DTV system represents the culmination of this work. DTV eventually will replace today's analog television service. After a transition period that allows stations to construct DTV transmission facilities and consumers gradually to replace their TV sets, broadcasts using the existing analog television system will cease and all over-the-air broadcast television service will be provided with the new DTV system.
- What is DTV?
DTV is a new "over-the-air" digital television system that will be used by the nearly 1600 local broadcast television stations in the United States. The DTV standard is based on the Advanced Television System Committee (ATSC) standard A/53. (For more details on this standard, you can also visit the ATSC web site at (http://www.atsc.org/.)
The DTV standard is a very flexible television system that will allow broadcasters to provide new and higher quality services. First, DTV will permit transmission of television programming in new wide screen, high resolution formats known as high definition television (HDTV). In addition, the new DTV television system allows transmissions in standard definition television (SDTV) formats that provide picture resolution similar to existing television service. Both the HDTV and SDTV formats will have significantly better color rendition than the existing analog television system. The DTV system also will allow broadcasters to transmit multiple programs simultaneously using a single television channel. TV stations will, depending on the type and source of programming, be able to transmit multiple SDTV programs or in some cases two HDTV programs. DTV also will provide improved audio quality, similar to that of compact discs, with up to five channels of sound per program.
The new system will also support delivery of digital data services simultaneously with television and audio programming. Using this data transmission capability, it will be possible for broadcast stations to send publications (such as a local "electronic newspaper"), program schedules, computer software, information requested about specific products, or virtually any other type of information, at the same time that they transmit regular television programming. The DTV system also provides the flexibility to support the introduction of new services in the future, as technology and viewer interests continue to develop.
- How does DTV provide these improvements?
With DTV, television pictures, sound, and new data services will be transmitted digitally, rather than as an analog signal. The increased capabilities and new services of DTV are made possible through the use of digital compression techniques that allow more information to be transmitted in the same amount of spectrum used by an existing television channel. The data rate of the DTV signal in the 6 MHz broadcast television channel is 19.44 Mbps. This compares with data rates of today's telephone modems of between approximately 28 and 56 Kbps.
- How will DTV be provided by broadcasters during the transition?
Television stations will operate two channels during the transition: an existing analog channel as well as a new DTV channel. The analog channel will allow consumers to continue to use their current TV sets to receive traditional analog programming during the transition. The DTV channel will allow consumers to receive new and improved services with new DTV sets or with special converter boxes that will allow some DTV programs and services to be viewed on existing analog sets. For At the end of the transition -- which is currently scheduled for 2006 -- stations will relinquish one of their two channels as they cease analog service and make the change to all-DTV service. The transition schedule is subject to periodic review by the FCC and can be extended beyond 2006 if certain conditions relating to the number of consumers who can receive DTV signals are not met.
- Will DTV operate for the same hours and reach as far as existing local TV service?
TV stations generally will be required to operate their DTV service on the same schedule as their existing service. Most stations' DTV service will reach at least as far as their existing service. However, some stations may operate initially with lower power transmitters, which may cause DTV service in these individual cases to not reach as far as existing TV coverage. You can contact your local TV station to see if its DTV service will be available where you live. Specifically, you may want to ask your local broadcaster whether its DTV signal is strong enough to cover its entire analog service area. If it is not, you may want to ask your broadcaster whether your neighborhood is within the station's initial DTV coverage area and when the broadcaster plans to extend its DTV signal coverage.
- Do I need a new TV set to receive DTV?
In general, to enjoy the full benefits of DTV such as wide screen, higher resolution pictures you will need to purchase a new DTV set. Existing television sets will not be able to display DTV signals. However, it is expected that less expensive converter boxes will be available that will allow you to watch standard definition DTV on an existing TV set. These boxes will receive DTV signals and convert them to the transmission system used by existing TV sets. The pictures received through these converter boxes should be clear of the "ghosts," and other interference that are characteristic of today's analog TV service in some areas. These converter boxes also will allow any new DTV programs (i.e., programs that are not also available via traditional analog service during the transition) to be displayed on existing TV sets. However, because most existing TV sets were not designed to display high resolution pictures, converter boxes will not be able to provide the higher HDTV picture quality that will be available on new DTV sets. Also, it is possible that some new DTV sets may be marketed that will not be able to display all DTV formats. For example, some DTV sets may not be able to display HDTV signals at their full resolution potential or some sets may not have the new wider screen size. Consumers should be aware of these format differences in selecting DTV sets and should ask electronics retailers to fully explain the capabilities of new DTV equipment.
- Will the new DTV sets be expensive?
Just as color sets were expensive when they were first introduced in the mid-1950's, the new DTV sets will be expensive at first. However, manufacturers have indicated that they expect prices to fall over time. As noted above, consumers also will have the option of obtaining a converter box that adapts an existing set to digital service. The price of these boxes is expected to drop significantly during the transition to full DTV service.
- Do I need an outside antenna to receive DTV? Is the antenna I use for existing TV reception good enough?
DTV is intended to work with an outside TV antenna (as is today's analog TV service). If you have an outside antenna and it provides acceptable TV reception now on UHF channels (i.e., channels 14-69), it should also work for DTV. Also, if your indoor antenna is capable of receiving UHF television service now, you may also be able to receive DTV service with that antenna. Indoor DTV reception is affected by a number of factors that vary depending on local conditions. Many retailers carrying DTV equipment have information about local reception conditions. In addition, some retailers are providing technical assistance to customers currently purchasing DTV equipment, including in some cases visits to the home to assist with reception issues. You may want to advise your retailer whether you plan to use an indoor or outdoor antenna and ask whether technical assistance is available.
- Will I be able to receive existing TV programming on my DTV set?
Yes, digital television sets available during the transition will be fully compatible with traditional analog TV programming. These new digital sets will have the capability to receive new DTV programming and will also be able to receive all the programming you receive today on your traditional set. This means that new DTV sets will be able to display all of the programming available today from broadcasters, cable operators, satellite TV services, other video service providers, and pre-recorded sources. So if you buy a new digital set, you will not lose the ability to get any of the programs you now receive on your current set. You should know, however, that depending on your cable operator's plans for carrying DTV signals (see below), you may need an antenna to receive broadcast DTV programming. To watch both antenna-received programming as well as programming from other sources such as cable or satellite, you may need extra equipment (such as an input selector or "A/B" switch).
- Will cable systems carry local DTV signals?
The FCC does not currently require cable systems to carry DTV signals. The FCC is, however, considering whether to impose such requirements. Nevertheless, some cable operators have indicated that they may carry the DTV programming of local broadcast stations. If these signals are carried in their original DTV format, no additional equipment will be needed to receive them on DTV sets. Some cable systems may, however, convert DTV programming to different digital formats and/or may carry DTV signals at lower resolutions than the original broadcast signal. In such cases, special cable "set-top" boxes may be needed to receive DTV. Consumers should consult with their local cable operator about its plans for providing the DTV programming of local television stations.
- Some cable systems are offering digital services. Does this mean that these cable systems will provide DTV signals just like broadcasters?
Not necessarily. Many cable systems are now offering digital service. However, these digital systems generally are intended to allow cable systems to provide more channels and other services, such as access to the Internet. Special digital set-top boxes are needed to convert digital cable signals for display on existing TVs. Also, cable systems use different digital standards than the DTV standard used by broadcasters and current DTV sets, so digital cable services currently cannot be directly received by DTV sets. Therefore, just as is the case with many existing TVs, a special digital set-top box will be needed to receive digital cable services on a new DTV set. Consumers should be aware that there may be additional charges for digital cable services and that special set-top boxes are needed to receive them. The FCC has instructed the cable industry and consumer electronics manufacturers to work together to try to develop standards to facilitate compatibility between DTV sets and digital cable service. This eventually may permit DTV sets to receive cable service (including digital service) without the need for special converter boxes.
- Will I be able to receive satellite TV services, including new HDTV programming, on my DTV set?
Yes, with the proper equipment. Satellite TV providers currently deliver programming service to consumers using separate satellite reception equipment (typically, a set-top satellite receiver and a satellite dish). Some satellite TV providers recently have announced plans to supply high definition digital programming for DTV sets. New set-top satellite receivers and slightly larger dishes generally will be needed to receive this programming. In addition, some consumer electronics manufacturers have announced plans to provide new digital sets with a built-in satellite TV receiver. If you purchase one of these sets, you may not need a separate set-top device. You may wish to ask your satellite TV provider about its plans for providing DTV programming, including any plans for providing high definition programming.
- Where can I get more information about any of these questions and issues?