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TV’s Digital Revolution

Are you ready for digital TV? Ready or not, digital technology and the Internet will change how we watch TV, where we watch TV and when we watch TV. In the next 2 years, it also could allow you to shop with your remote.

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Bang & Olufsen

We think of television as a means of watching our favorite sitcom at 8 p.m. on Thursday. But gradually, we’ll think of TV as a 24-hour-a-day portal to seemingly endless entertainment choices.

Analog transmissions will end on Feb. 17, but that’s just the start of the digital TV revolution.

TV is not just a home technology anymore. Sure, you probably watch TV on a conventional screen, and you probably will most of the time for years to come. But increasingly, you’ll watch TV on other devices, such as a computer, a cellphone or a personal media player. You also will access far more programming options, whether you’re at home or away.

In fact, you might not be able to distinguish among a broadcast TV show, a movie, a clip from the Internet, music videos from a Web site, a cable network series or shows recorded on your digital video recorder (DVR). It’ll all be “TV,” no matter whether you watch it on the 60-inch LCD screen in your living room, the 15-inch screen of your notebook computer on the train or the 2-inch screen on your cellphone on the bus.

Today’s TV watcher expects access to his/her choice of video wherever he/she goes, says Michael Hawkey of EchoStar, parent company of satellite TV provider DISH Network. Best of all, depending on your choice of viewing, adjusting your picture might not adjust your wallet. In many cases, this new mobility will cost you nothing. In a few cases, however, you might have to purchase additional equipment.

FLIP THE SWITCH. Every TV station in the United States broadcasts a digital signal, and many have been doing so for a decade. That won’t change on Feb. 17. What will change is that the analog signal will be switched off.

People who rely on cable, satellite or the newest pay TV-delivery method—fiber-optic service—to get their TV won’t notice anything. But if you pick up an over-the-air signal with an antenna and you don’t have a digital TV or a digital TV converter box, you will see nothing but static or a blank screen.

Converter boxes typically cost $40 to $70 and are available at electronics retailers. National Telecommunications and Information Administration is providing every U.S. household with two $40 coupons to offset the cost.

As long as you have an antenna and a converter box, you should receive a picture. However, some analog antennas might not work after the switchover. A new one costs as little as $7 or as much as $100. The Web site antennaweb.org will help you optimize your reception for your geographic area.

Ultimately, digital broadcasting technology allows for a sharper picture, although if you have an antenna, you might find yourself susceptible to the same occasional delays and glitches suffered by people who have satellite TV. It also enables TV stations to transmit a bundle—or multicast—of as many as six different channels. Multicasts provide additional channels of programming along with the main network feed. Denver viewers, for example, can tune in to broadcasts from 20 digital TV stations, with an additional 13 channels available through multicasting at no extra cost.

Public Broadcasting Service stations use multicasting extensively. But although all commercial network stations deliver extensive high-definition programming schedules, only a few in each city multicast. A multicast channel often is used to show a continuous weather report or breaking news. Some stations have devoted multicast channels to kids’ programming, old TV shows or foreign-language content.

“You have to call multicasting market experiments right now,” says Lynn Claudy, National Association of Broadcasters’ senior vice president for science and technology. “But I think any broadcaster will admit that if they can do an HDTV channel plus some other things, that’s better than doing just one thing.”

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