We’re about a month away from the end of broadcast television. … Maybe.
The United States, eager to auction off valuable spectrum space, has set Feb. 17 as a mandatory cut-off date, when all televisions must stop analog transmission and switch to digital.
The problem is that millions of television sets are not capable of receiving digital television signals and won’t be able to receive anything after this date.
No problem, the government says. They’ll institute a rebate program on converter boxes that receive the digital signal and spit out an analog one that the TV can read. Every household can get a $40 coupon, and the program will cost about $1.3 billion. Yeah, sure, that’s throwing an insane amount of money at the problem, but it’s much less than they would gain in auctions of the spectrum to various wireless interests.
But there’s a problem. The budget has run out, the coupons are on a waiting list and millions of people don’t have their converter boxes a month before the turnoff and switchover is supposed to take place. It’s gotten so bad President-elect Barack Obama is already suggesting there be a delay in the switchover.
In Canada, the switch happens on Aug. 31, 2011, for the entire country except the North. We’re facing the same issues two years down the road.
Less is more is less
The chart above (from my favourite wall chart, which I guess shows how nerdy I am) is Canada’s spectrum allocation table. Anything that transmits information wirelessly does so on a frequency allocated in the boxes above. I’ve noted the big broadcasting allocations for AM/FM radio and television. Note that this is a logarithmic scale, so every row is 10 times the size of the previous one.
Each television channel represents 6 MHz of bandwidth, which is huge. For comparison, the entire GPS system uses 25 MHz of bandwidth, air traffic control and FM radio are only 20 MHz each, CB radio only 1.7 MHz.
Multiplied by the 67 channels that can be allocated, that makes 402 MHz of available bandwidth, or enough to double the entire bandwidth currently allocated to cellular phones. Currently, the U.S. plans to reallocate only channels 52-69, or 108 MHz. And only part of that would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. But it’s still worth tens of billions of dollars.
Digital television uses far less than the 6 MHz of analog, and under the ATSC standard that North American digital television uses, that same channel can hold up to six digital channels. This means that under the new digital system, more television channels have space to broadcast even though the total space goes down.
But is that really necessary? How many broadcast television stations exist in even the most dense urban area?
In Montreal, there are only nine:
- CBFT-2 (Radio-Canada)
- CBMT-6 (CBC)
- CFTM-10 (TVA)
- CFCF-12 (CTV)
- CIVM-17 (Télé-Québec)
- CFTU-29 (Canal Savoir)
- CJFP-35 (TQS)
- CKMI-46 (Global)
- CJNT-62 (E!)
If we include U.S. stations in nearby Burlington and Plattsburgh, we have six more:
- WCAX-3 (CBS)
- WPTZ-5 (NBC)
- WVNY-22 (ABC)
- WETK-33 (PBS/Vermont Public Television)
- WFFF-44 (Fox)
- WCFE-57 (PBS)
And for good measure we’ll throw in CJOH-8, which retransmits CTV Ottawa’s signal from Cornwall.
That’s a total of 16. Even if we double that to account for larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, that’s still about half the total number of channels available.
So here’s my question: Why not keep analog television, reduce the number of channels to, say, 40, and move stations like CJNT, CKMI, WFFF and WCFE to lower channels?
Channel allocators used to worry greatly about interference, so they would avoid having a station on the same channel in Montreal and Quebec City, but the number of people who have TV antennas powerful enough for that to matter has reduced to near nothing.
Sure, it would be annoying for those stations to switch, but older TVs could still find them.
Can’t stop the future
But even if we assume my argument makes sense, it’s academic now. Broadcasters have already bought the equipment, lots of people already have their converter boxes, and 90% of TV watchers already use cable or satellite which isn’t affected by all this at all.
An optimist might hope that with all these new channels available, new local TV stations might start up and we’d have more diversity in television. But if you think that’s true you’re insane. The Internet of today is the public access TV of yesterday. And at some point, probably many years in the future, we’ll look at our current method of television delivery and laugh at the idea that people just sat and watched whatever some broadcaster decided to air.
As the VHF and UHF knobs on our ancient televisions become useless, I leave you with this song to contemplate what might have been if TV was made up of individual stations and original programming instead of national network rebroadcasters.