From the October, 1998 PC ALAMODE Magazine:
What’s So Important 
About Digital Television
- and why should I buy into it?
 
by Charles Vaughn

Digital Television - DTV - is going to change more than the look of television as we know it, it will change what television can do and how we use the medium.

 Though most of this article will deal with the consumer’s perspective, let’s start off with two quotes from a broadcast television professional who has a better-than-average grasp of all the issues and what they mean to broadcasters and consumers: 

“Anyone who tells you they know how DTV is going to come out doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

 “The major problem these days is that the average time between decisions… is longer than the average time between surprises.”
David Liroff, VP & Chief Technology Officer, 
WGBH/Boston

I trust David because he is well informed and isn’t selling anything. Both his points are rich with meaning, and demonstrate why the transition from analog to digital broadcasting is causing such an uproar among broadcasters, and will probably cause an uproar with consumers as soon as they realize what is ahead.

 The first point - not knowing how it’s all going to turn out - shows why the transition poses such a problem for broadcasters. Issues include:

     
  • television is moving from a single, well-understood standard to multiple standards that the industry is still debating

  •  

     

  • the outcome will be determined by the marketplace, not by regulation

  •  

     

  • broadcast content will be displayed in a variety of formats and levels of resolution on TVs and on computers

  •  

     

  • digital broadcasting includes not just pictures and sound, but also data that may or may not be related to the program(s)

  •  

     

  • there are unresolved technical issues such as off-air reception problems and a lack of accurate models for transmitter power and coverage area

  •  

     

  • there is currently no requirement that cable TV companies must carry the DTV programming of local television stations

  •  

     

  • early equipment will be more expensive and less refined than later generations, slowing consumer participation in DTV
So broadcasters are being required to invest millions of dollars in digital broadcasting equipment and facilities despite many important unanswered questions. Broadcast implementation is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission despite what looks like slow consumer acceptance of the new medium. Each television station in San Antonio must be broadcasting DTV programming by the year 2003 or lose the channel that has been assigned to it for DTV operations. Stations will continue to broadcast analog programming on the channels they currently use, and they must continue to provide both analog and digital services for an indefinite period of time. All that broadcasting adds up to a lot of capital and operational expense with no demonstrable economic benefit for some time. But that’s the down side of DTV. Let’s turn to the good stuff!

 In the beginning, DTV broadcasts will probably not be much different than current programming. You will be able to view a movie on a true wide screen in high definition with surround sound. This is what’s called HDTV - or High Definition Television - and the quality is quite remarkable. Once you see a full-quality HDTV broadcast, you will understand what we’ve been missing all these years watching “regular” TV. HDTV will add sparkle and impact to performing arts and sports programming as well as movies and documentaries. We expect that network Prime Time programming will all be in HDTV within a few years.

 There is also a provision for Standard Definition Television (SDTV). A single station will be able to transmit several SDTV programs simultaneously and your DTV receiver will be able to sort out the one you choose to watch. This is called “Multicasting” and it is one of the features of DTV that we in public television find most exciting. We will be able to serve four or more different audiences at the same time, making it possible to have children’s programming, college telecourses, instructional television for classroom use, and timely local programming - all at the same time. But, as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all!

 DTV will incorporate pictures and sound and also other forms of data in what is known as Datacasting. KLRN is already involved in a couple of forms of Datacasting now, but with DTV broadcasting, the available bandwidth will increase dramatically. The increased bandwidth will allow downloading multimedia files, databases, streaming informational services and interactive data services. 

Digital Television will be a whole new communications medium, more than just “TV as usual” with better pictures and a wide screen. Because of its high data bandwidth, DTV will improve on some of the technologies that are evolving now on the Internet. Viewers will become “users” of DTV in the same way that we are actively involved in content on the Internet. DTV Users will be able to access additional information about the shows they are watching - while the show is in progress. If this idea is somewhat strange to you, imagine how a room full of television producers reacts to the concept of interactive television.

 The whole business of television will change with the transition to DTV and with interactive services. Television will change from an advertising supported medium to a sales supported medium. The DTV User will be involved in transactions throughout the time the User is online, and the programmers will take full advantage of that access. 

For some programming, rigid broadcast schedules will be phased out in favor of many on-demand services - certainly in the homes with cable and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services. Today, using the Internet, you can call up the day’s top stories on NPR, using Real Audio. In the future, you will be able to do the same for television programming.

 So, what is it going to take to get us into the DTV age?

 Money. Lots of money.

 Initially, High Definition DTV receivers will be very expensive. Expect to see HD-DTV sets priced above $10,000. Don’t expect to see me buying one. But as with computers, expect the second generation of consumer receivers to cost a lot less and be a lot better. And the generation after that might be something we can afford.

 In the meanwhile, there are at least three ways to access some of the benefits of DTV. The DBS providers are promising HDTV channels on their services in the fall. After local broadcasters start DTV transmission - maybe as soon as the year 2000 in San Antonio - you can put a DTV tuner card in your multimedia computer and you will be ready to go - for as little as $200 - if you don’t mind watching TV on your computer. The final option is the set-top converter box - it’s like your cable box, but converts DTV signals to analog to hook up to your current TV set. Won’t be as full-featured as a “real” DTV set, but it won’t cost as much as a compact car, either.

 One of the many unknowns in DTV planning is the question of “how good is good enough?” Consumers who have large home-theatre systems with really big screens will want to view HDTV in all its glory -- 1080 lines of vertical resolution. That’s more than twice the number of lines in the current analog system, but it is also coupled with dramatically improved horizontal resolution so that the increase in viewable detail is remarkable. Big displays take advantage of all that data, small ones don’t. All that data also takes more memory and higher processor power than lower levels of resolution, increasing receiver cost. Another “improved resolution” format calls for a 720-line picture. This picture is much better than the current analog system which actually uses 480 lines for the picture, fine for a 30” DTV set - but it’s a long way from the 1080 HDTV picture. Which is good enough? Depends on where you sit.

 It’s exciting to be in on the emergence of a new communications medium. With any luck, I’ll still be around to see how it all turns out - but that won’t be for several years. In the meanwhile, keep in mind the criteria that have governed consumer acceptance of new technologies over the years: the early adopters will pay a premium for equipment that is obsolete more quickly than equipment that is developed later in the product cycle. The price of the equipment will come down as it becomes a commodity, and as manufacturing techniques improve. And as with your personal computer, the time to buy a new television receiver is when you need a benefit from the new one that the old one can’t provide. Ultimately, the consumers are the ones who make those choices because the television stations will provide both analog and digital television services… for the foreseeable future.

 Links to useful information about DTV:

Charles Vaughn is the Senior Vice President, Telecommunications for KLRN, the public television station in San Antonio, Texas. He is also the president of SalsaNet.