With due fanfare, WFAA-TV in Dallas became the first station in the country to begin regular broadcasts of digital television signals last month. But the dawn of what could be a revolutionary new era in television ended almost as soon as it began. WFAA hurriedly switched off its signal because it was interfering with wireless heart monitors at a nearby hospital.
The glitch didn't harm any patients, and promoters of digital television dismiss it as a fluke. But as America's 1,600 television stations begin their transition this year to digital TV, the incident highlights problems that will have to be resolved before the revolution can be televised.
Digital television has been hyped for years as the next big thing. It could give viewers clearer pictures, more channels and interactive services -- sports fans might call up a batter's biography at the bottom of a screen, for instance.
Some stations might use it to offer high-definition television. Compared with current analog transmissions, its wide, crystal-clear images would be "like the difference between a one-man band and a symphony," Vice President Al Gore said in a recent speech.
It will be, that is, if it works as planned. With eight months to go before stations in the 10 largest cities are required by federal rules to begin offering digital signals, the new TV is dogged by nettlesome technical questions.
Industry field tests show many homes might not be able to receive digital signals unless they install rooftop antennas and some might not be able to get them at all. Unlike analog broadcasts, digital pictures don't come in with ghosts or "snow," but if the digital signal is blocked by foliage or even the walls of a home, the screen could go blank, experts say.
In some cities, this problem might be resolved by erecting tall towers that can rain down pictures on a direct line of sight.
In addition to heart monitors, Bruce Franca, an FCC engineer, says interference could extend to maritime radios, wireless microphones, local cable TV systems and apartment satellite antennas.
Broadcasters say people who use these devices will have to readjust their equipment or move off the portion of the airwaves that has been reserved for years for digital TV broadcasts.
But that might not be simple, or cheap. "This could impact other hospitals across the country," says Steve Juett, the senior clinical engineering at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, where the heart monitors malfunctioned. "It takes many months of planning to make these changes, as well as a major financial commitment."
Proponents of the technology, say the bugs aren't unexpected and in any case won't affect the start of digital TV later this year. All digital stations must be on the air by 2006.
"We haven't found anything we didn't expect," says Victor Tawil, senior vice present of the Maximum Service Television Association, a broadcasters trade group. But he adds: "If we don't make it on the air (by the FCC deadlines) it will be because of factors beyond our control."
For example, broadcasters in New York want to place digital equipment atop the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center towers. But those sites, which already hold TV transmitters, might be too full to handle more equipment, and negotiations are continuing.
Concedes Tawil: "Not everyone (in New York) is going to make it by November. We're in a tough spot."
Similar difficulties are likely to arise elsewhere, asserts Ronald Gibbs, chief executive of Lodestar Towers Inc., a Florida tower builder. He estimates the industry will need 700 new towers, some as high as 1,500 feet, to complete the transition.
But there aren't enough skilled crews available for that much construction by 2006, he says. According to Gibbs, accidents involving construction of TV towers have led to seven deaths in the past two years.
"No one in the industry believes it's realistic to get all this done by 2006," he says. "The only people who believe it are in Washington."