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Thinking about buying an expensive plasma-screen TV from the base exchange? You might want to hold off a few years.

The American Forces Network won’t convert its satellite broadcast to a system that’s compatible with high-definition television until 2013 for Pacific viewers, according to Larry Sichter, a Defense Media Center spokesman in Riverside, Calif.

But even when it does come along, the capacity to convert the signal will still be left to base cable systems, AFN Tokyo officials said Tuesday.

"You’ll be receiving it on your base cable system or the direct-to-home dishes off base," said Kyle Hammitt, director of media for AFN Tokyo at Yokota Air Base, Japan. "We do not broadcast the television signal and won’t be doing so. ... Basically, we just funnel it out for them to grab and redistribute around the base."

AFN’s current digital compression system packs 10 channels into a slither of satellite broadband. So, at the moment, watching AFN on a fancy new TV is like driving a Ferrari around base at 30 mph.

U.S. shows are broadcast in an NTSC standard (525 lines), the same one used in Japan and South Korea.

However, the AFN signal in the Pacific goes through a process that lowers picture quality, officials said.

It starts off as a digital signal but is then downlinked by AFN Pacific outlets and converted to analog. AFN inserts regional and local command information and news spots, converts the signal back using digital compression and uplinks it to satellites, Sichter said.

"This recompression of an already compressed signal reduces the video resolution," he said.

In five years, base cable systems must have the new digital standard set up in order to receive the high-definition signal that will come from the broadcast center in California, according to Dave Sutton, AFN Tokyo’s chief of communications and information systems. He said most televisions manufactured today feature both analog and digital tuners.

"We’d have to put the signal out in a high-def fashion," he said. "But we are subject to the base cable systems. It’s up to them to make the transitions."

At Yokota on Tuesday, airmen were mixed about the present lack of HD television on base.

Airman 1st Class Brandon Thompson, 24, of Spring Lake, N.C., said he doesn’t own one and is more concerned about paying off his van. His opinion might change if he got married or promoted and started making more money, he added.

"It really doesn’t bother me too much," Thompson said. "I can’t spend my clothing allowance on TVs."

Airman Ronald Anastasia of Yokota’s 374th Maintenance Squadron says gaming would be the only reason to purchase a jazzy new HDTV now, but that’s just not enough of one for him.

"I thought about buying one before," said Anastasia, 18, of Sacramento, Calif. "But the channels weren’t any clearer on my friend’s HDTV, so I’ll stick with the standard.

"If we got more channels in high definition, I’d probably buy one."

AFN will announce and publicize details of its conversion plans sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, Sichter said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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