WASHINGTON: The digital revolution is about to sweep into the television market under a plan unanimously approved by the Federal Communications Commission Thursday which will allow networks to offer digital broadcasts. The first digital televisions are expected to go on sale by Christmas of 1998. The digital broadcasts, which would allow for cinema-quality pictures on specialized digital televisions, are slated to begin within 18 months in the nation's 10 largest markets. Smaller markets will have between 30 months and five years to begin digital broadcasts, and all stations must completely phase them in by the year 2006 under the FCC plan. Recognizing that many consumers may be reluctant to switch over to the new sets, the FCC said it is prepared to extend that deadline if consumers don't take to digital TV; HDTV sets are expected to cost upwards of $2,000. "We just don't see customers shelling out a lot of money for HDTV receivers," said Jonathan Cassell, an industry analyst for the market research firm Data Quest, during an interview with TIME Online. "You will see a lot more customers buying cheaper TV set top boxes which can receive digital signals and display them in a standard, analog format." The set top converters will range in price from $150 to $300, and ultimately, may postpone, if not prevent, the death knell of analog televisions. Meanwhile, some consumer and government watchdog groups wonder if the FCC's plan to give away dozens of channels worth between $6 and $70 billion is a wise move for the general public. The Media Access Project, a Washington lobby which focuses on communications issues, called the plan, "one of the largest federal giveaways of the century." To quell the criticism, FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said a possible exchange could be a requirement for broadcast companies to provide more public service access. President Clinton chimed in with a plan which may include free air time for political ads in exchange for free digital broadcasting licenses.