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Digital TV Conversion is Finally Here

The USA has spent the better part of a decade preparing for the big switch to digital TV, which concludes tonight.

Now what?

Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps says consumers won't have to wait long to see the magic of digital technology, which holds promise for TV, wireless and emergency communications.

The upshot: "We're going from the Dinosaur Age to the Digital Age," the FCC chief says.

The most immediate impact will be in the area of free TV. For over-the-air TV viewers, there will be "lots more channels and better pictures," Copps says. Sound quality also improves.

What this means: If you're among the 20 million homes that receive TV signals exclusively over the air, you could see a dramatic bump in the number of channels you get. Some will likely be broadcast in high-definition, or HD, which offers images so crisp, they look 3-D. (Analog TVs won't morph into HD units, they'll just get better pictures.)

The increase is due to the efficiency of digital technology, which can pack a lot of programming into the space formerly occupied by a single analog channel.

How much more? If you had 10 analog channels, you could wind up with as many as 60 digital channels over time, all free. These "multicast" offerings show up as "subchannels" - 7.1, 7.2 and so on.

As in the analog world, TV stations can use their digital bits any way they want. That opens myriad opportunities, says former AOL executive Bob Pittman.

"When you look at the number of TV stations out there, you have almost unlimited possibilities of ideas to try," says Pittman, who now runs The Pilot Group, which has 21 TV stations in 15 markets.

"Somebody's going to do something that makes you say, "Wow, I didn't even think of that,' " Pittman says. "To me, the big idea is the one that's going to come out of nowhere."

Near term, however, more traditional fare will probably dominate, he says.

"If you ask what's the most important thing about a local TV station, it's local news, information and weather," he says. "You'll find some doubling up on that (sort of fare), so people have more opportunities to watch at their convenience."

An opening for CW, newer networks

Angling to take advantage of extra capacity, some TV stations are hustling.

Consider The CW, which caters to younger viewers. It's been the odd man out in many small communities for years, where the handful of stations are mostly aligned with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Thanks to the DTV transition, however, stations across the country are adding CW as a digital channel. CW digital markets include Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Honolulu.

TV stations also are looking at newer networks such as RTV-Retro Television Network and MGM's This TV, which offer relatively cheap programming, as well as an advertising opportunity. Both cater to fans of old movies and reruns of older prime-time shows such as "Adam-12" and "Green Acres."

Other network newcomers being eyed: Universal Sports, from NBC Universal, which features badminton, cycling, fencing, skiing, volleyball and other niche-oriented games; and LATV, which showcases Latin music videos and other shows aimed at Spanish-speaking and bilingual viewers.

Mobile, which is becoming a lifestyle around the world, is a growing area of interest.

Keen to reach as many eyeballs as possible, broadcasters are eager to transmit their TV shows and other digital services to mobile devices of every sort, including netbooks, cellphones and TV sets embedded in cars.

That isn't possible right now. Digital TV pictures tend to break up when the set moves.

But technology is evolving, making that less of a problem. By the end of this year, about 70 stations in 28 markets plan to adopt a new broadcast standard that is friendly to mobile. That will let them beam digital TV signals directly to devices, which will hit retail shelves later this year.

"What's cool about this is that there will be free offerings, including alerts for weather and breaking news," says Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, an industry group.

Eventually, she says, the technology "will be inexpensive enough to be in just about any device with a screen."

Smarter, faster phones?

Big wireless carriers, meantime, have their own plans for DTV.

AT&T and Verizon were among the companies that paid $20 billion for the spectrum being vacated by broadcasters. The spectrum can penetrate walls, heavy foliage and other objects, making it ideal for mobile broadband.

Once it's put to work for wireless carriers, the performance of smart devices such as the Apple iPhone could vastly improve, says Charles Golvin, a senior wireless analyst at Forrester Research. "When it comes to higher speeds and richer services, spectrum really is the lifeblood of carriers."

AT&T and Verizon plan to use their respective hunks of spectrum for fourth-generation wireless. Once those transitions are complete, the mobile Web experience for their customers "will become much more like the land-line Internet," says Roger Entner, head of telecom research for Nielsen.

Speed will be the most noticeable difference. Right now, mobile Web users are lucky to get 1 megabit per second. Once AT&T and Verizon switch to 4G, he says, speeds in the "high single digits" won't be unusual.

The bad news: "That will be it for awhile, because at that point, you're reaching the physical limits" of the spectrum and the networks they support.

One big exception is Sprint, which is deploying WiMax wireless technology using spectrum it has owned for years. Surfing speed: up to 12 megabits. But construction of its network has been slow, so build-out could take a few years. Sprint currently offers WiMax in Baltimore; Atlanta, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas launch this summer.

John Donovan, chief technology officer of AT&T, says consumers are the biggest winners of this wireless footrace.

Wireless "consumers are going to have a lot more choice and a lot better choice" in the future, he says. Ditto for video customers, he adds. AT&T and Verizon both offer video products that compete head-on with cable TV.

Carriers will also benefit. They can roll out far more robust services, ensuring that the wireless data gravy train - worth billions to them - continues its white-hot pace, Entner says. Prices probably won't come down, however, at least not until growth stalls: "They'll squeeze (consumers) as long as they can."

Another side benefit of DTV: improved emergency communications.

Bolstered by chunks of the Grade-A airwaves being abandoned by broadcasters, Copps says communications among police, fire and other emergency personnel will be far more reliable. That could mean the difference between life and death during local and national disasters.

Flipping the switch tonight

All this is predicated on the assumption that the DTV transition goes smoothly. That's not a given.

As of Wednesday, about 2.8 million over-the-air-only homes were still not ready for the switch, says the FCC, citing Nielsen estimates. Millions of "secondary" TVs in back bedrooms and garages also weren't prepared, though some of those may never be transitioned, the FCC says.

So far, more than 780 stations, most in smaller markets, have made the switch. Major hitches have been rare, but there have been nagging problems with antennas and digital converter boxes.

Antennas typically have to be adjusted, or moved to a new location, post-switch. In some cases, new antennas may be needed. Converter boxes, which turn digital signals into analog, must be rescanned.

The final DTV push ends tonight. Throughout the day, full-power stations in major markets - including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles - will shut down their analog signals. By midnight, they'll be transmitting exclusively in digital. With that, the DTV era in the USA will begin.

The government is still offering $40 coupons - two per household while supplies last - for the purchase of converter boxes, which cost about $60. Analog TVs won't work post-switch without a box attached. Coupons take a week or so to arrive.

If you don't have coupons and want to get them, however, there's still time, says Joel Kelsey, public policy analyst at Consumers Union.

"Don't panic if you wake up on (June) 13th and don't have a TV signal," he says.

Consumers have until July 31 to apply for coupons, he notes. (If you don't want to wait, you can also buy a box without a coupon.) So far, 59 million coupons have been distributed.

Copps, the FCC chief, says he realizes that all this has probably been a hassle for some consumers. But he also thinks DTV is well worth it. "It's fantastic."

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