SPECIAL REPORT: TV, TODAY AND TOMORROW
In a deal originally made in 1996, broadcasters may soon be forced to
return airwaves now used to transmit analog signals
For nearly a decade, the nation's 1,700 TV stations have been
promising to broadcast crystal-clear digital signals to viewers across
the country. But somehow, rushing toward that end never seemed to be
entirely in their best interest.
Those promises go back to a deal broadcasters made with the federal
government under the 1996 Telecommunications Act and a follow-up
congressional bill a year later. Broadcasters received free electronic
airwaves -- which are technically owned by the public and controlled
by the federal government -- for digital transmissions. In return,
they had to give back the airwaves they now use for their old analog
broadcasts, which had been doled out over several decades. But they
didn't have to return it until 85% of U.S. households receive digital
signals or the year 2006, whichever came later.
Now patience is running out for the broadcasters to turn in that
valuable piece of the sky. The year 2006 is just around the corner,
and carriers are now sending digital signals that reach 85% of
households in just about all of the nation's 210 TV markets (even
though not all those households have digital-ready TVs).