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Digital TV is coming to a screen near you!

WASHINGTON, April 3 (Reuter) - Regulators were set  
Thursday to give broadcasters free licenses to provide 
revolutionary high-definition digital television that will 
begin reaching viewers in the nation's top 10 markets within 
18 months. 

After late-night talks Wednesday, Federal Communications  
Commission officials agreed on rules detailing the roll-out of 
digital TV broadcasts, which promise the biggest change in TV 
viewing since colour pictures were introduced in the 1950s. 

Officials said the FCC scheduled a public meeting Thursday  
at which the agency's four commissioners were expected to 
approve the rules, overriding objections from critics who say 
broadcasters are getting a multi-billion dollar giveaway 
through free use of the airwaves. 

The decision by Congress to allow broadcasters to be given  
the new licenses free of charge has provoked uproar from the 
likes of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, other key 
lawmakers, consumer advocates and others. The FCC has valued 
the digital airwaves at up to $70 billion. 

``This is, indeed, one of the largest federal giveaways of  
the century,'' said Gigi Sohn, executive director of the Media 
Access Project, a public interest law firm. 

Broadcasters would be required to return their existing  
analogue licenses to the government by 2006. The government is 
expected to auction those licenses for other uses. 

Digital TV offers crystal-clear pictures and CD-quality  
sound. It is expected to promote a ``computer friendly'' TV 
system allowing viewers to watch programmes while surfing the 
Internet over the same ``smart box.'' 

Already, its pending introduction has started a race  
between computer makers and TV manufacturers to woo viewers. 

The FCC rules are expected to require stations affiliated  
with the major networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- to begin 
broadcasting digital signals in the top 10 metropolitan areas 
within two years, according to officials. 

Network affiliates within the top 30 markets would be  
required to transmit in digital format within 2-1/2 years. 

Under pressure from FCC officials, at least two dozen  
stations have agreed to initiate broadcasts in the top 10 
markets within 18 months, according to Commissioner Susan 
Ness, who was a key participant in brokering the rules. 

That would give manufacturers leeway to ship digital sets  
in time for the important Christmas shopping season in 1998. 

Ness said Wednesday the voluntary commitment of major  
broadcasters to be on air by then and the commitment of TV 
makers to have sets ready for consumers in those markets at 
the time ``will fuel the rapid rollout of digital television.'' 

The top 10 markets are: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago,  
Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Dallas-Fort 
Worth, Detroit and Atlanta. 

``Broadcasters are prepared to voluntarily transition to  
digital and high-definition TV faster than we converted from 
black and white to colour TV,'' said Dennis Wharton, spokesman 
for the National Association of Broadcasters. ``Consumers will be
the big winners once they experience  the wonders of high-defition TV.''

Digital technology is expected to allow broadcasters to  
squeeze as many as six channels through an existing channel, 
or TV stations could offer a single high-definition signal. 

Digital TV also is expected to hasten the convergence of  
TV and computer technologies. Sports fans would be able to 
watch a baseball game and split their screen to receive 
up-to-the-minute scores of other games over the Internet.