Twenty-somethings have a hard time buying the stories our parents tell us about the advent of television in the 1950s and '60s. I mean, who can imagine a world in which a family who owned a color set was the envy of the block?

But you may find your neighbors flocking over to watch the New Year's Eve 1999 celebration at your house thanks to a ruling of the Federal Communications Commission last week that will bring digital television into the U.S. market.

Believe it or not, the technology that powers television sets--from hand-held models to the big screens for Loker--is older than a joke on "Saturday Night Live." Digital TV will bring our viewing habits into the latter half of the twentieth century.

Digital broadcasting encodes data--in this case, the video and audio signal sent by a station--in binary form as ones and zeroes. Computers and compact discs are dependent on digital encoding instead of the older analog methods.

Analog systems, while less complex to design, are limited by their low fidelity--their inability to preserve data flawlessly. Digital TV will allow for higher resolution and CD-quality sound.


Digital TV standards will allow broadcasters more flexibility in their offerings. Some stations can use the extra band width in their digital channels to multiply the amount of data they can transmit by a factor of six. Interactive content, such as Web pages or stock quotes, could be transmitted simultaneously.

Other stations will have the option of sending just one "signal" over their frequency, but making their broadcast high-definition instead. Manufacturers and content providers have fought over HDTV--which provides for a larger viewing area and greater resolution--for the better part of a decade. HDTV will be available over the new digital channels.

Unfortunately, the new digital standard is completely incompatible with old TV sets, which were designed for (you guessed it) analog signals. Being the first on the block to have a digital set will carry a high price tag: when they are introduced in Christmas 1998, digital TVs are expected to cost between $2,000 and $5,000.

Over time, the cost of these sets should fall considerably. Still, you won't be able to cling to your Samsung forever.

Broadcasters will transmit both analog and digital signals for nine years until 2086, when all analog licenses will revert to FCC control. The old "channel 2 to channel 82" spectrum will be used for wireless Internet access, cell phones and other personal communications devices.

You'll need a new VCR to take advantage of your new digital TV, so expect to shell out $500 or so for one of those. Then again, by the time that analog signs off the airwaves, DVD and DVD-R discs will have put the VCR next to the eight-track on the dust bin of tech history, so that's not much of a problem.

The biggest potential problem for digital TV lies with cable systems. Only one cable system in the country can currently handle digital signals; all the rest will have to invest in billions of dollars of new equipment first.

Cable companies grumble that they will be shelling out while broadcasters will receive new digital licenses--valued at almost $70 billion by some estimates--at no charge. Of course, cable systems will pass the costs on to you and me, so ignore the tears right now.

--Kevin S. Davis '98, a Crimson editor, is director of HASCS's Advanced Support Team and an independent computer consultant. His e-mail address is