Analog TV shutdown is a mistake

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

Canadian broadcasting allocations in the electromagnetic spectrum

Canadian broadcasting allocations in the electromagnetic spectrum

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.

27 thoughts on “Analog TV shutdown is a mistake

  1. ladyjaye75

    I don’t have cable (use good ole rabbit ears instead) and because I’m near the port, I can’t get any of the US channels and Rad-Can and TVA come in snowy (TQS and Télé-Qc, on the other hand, come in perfectly). I wonder one thing: can HD over-the-air signal resist interference better? i.e. If I bought a flat-screen TV tomorrow with an HD tuner, would the HD reception be easier to get?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Digital television’s error-correction will resist minor signal degradation better than analog television, and the government would have you believe that whatever you can receive now will still be viewable under digital TV.

      The big problem though is the “cliff effect“, where the signal degrades enough that the digital receiver can’t make heads or tails out of it anymore. Stations that you receive snowy might not pass this threshold and would be lost.

      1. OTA Burnaby

        “The big problem though is the “cliff effect”, where the signal degrades enough that the digital receiver can’t make heads or tails out of it anymore. Stations that you receive snowy might not pass this threshold and would be lost”

        That is true, but the digital cliff can work to your benefit also, in that video quality can be the same whether you are 10 miles or 100 miles from the transmitters.
        Yes, if you live past the digital cliff, reception can be impossible, but there are ways to increase its range. I am one of those people that has benefited greatly from the conversion to digital of the Canadian and US stations, and love the VASTLY superior video/audio quality. The fact it is free and 100% legal is just makes it even more amazing.

        My location in Burnaby BC, is aprox 114 miles from the major networks in Seattle Washington. When the US stations were analog only, the reception at my location was an unwatchable snowy mess, with only the faintest trace of video and just hiss for audio. Since the digital conversion, I now receive all the 3 major US networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) in perfect jaw dropping HD quality with 5.1 surround sound. Hi-Def TV was built for big events such as sports and even the local news takes on a whole new world when seen in the best quality, which is OTA HD.

        The problem that I see with OTA is two fold:

        1. TV stations failure to see the potential for this new technology
        2. Lack of interest, plus some ignorance by average Canadian

        Both the Canadian consumer and Canadian TV stations are both typically content to depend on the same operating model that has been used since the late 1960’s, ie. cable/satellite companies to pipe the signals into peoples homes. The TV broadcasters are sitting on a very valuable commodity, namely a portion of the RF spectrum. Since they are not making any new frequencies, and with the advent of OTA HD providing the highest possible video quality (better than cable or satellite), the Canadian broadcasters should make more of an effort to maximize its potential.

        If OTA HDTV was better promoted and better utilized, it could benefit both the broadcasters and Canadian public.
        The OTA broadcasters are sitting on a fabulous product that could be used to increase overall viewership, and thus increase revenues from advertising.
        The Canadian public gets the highest quality TV picture, and the costs are paid by business advertising.

        Many people will always want their 300 channel universe so cable/satellite will continue to be the prime delivery method. Where the increased overall viewership would come from, is the likes of myself, who drifted away from TV completely in favor of the internet. Yes, most TV shows can be found on the internet, but you can not beat a high bitrate 1080i channel viewed on a 52″ HDTV for quality, and we are MANY years away from the internet being able to provide enough bandwidth to allow large numbers of people to STREAM high quality live HDTV

    2. Alex

      Digital Television is harder to receive than analog because digital has error correct which means that unlike YouTube when the picture quality is going down to 144p because of a weak wifi connection, digital television stays at the same quality but at a certain threshold where the digital signal is very weak it might pixelate or say no signal and you can’t watch the program so either you get the signal or you don’t and that killed the concept of a portable tv because digital signals are hard to get reliably without disruption when you are moving in a car but with analog you can still watch the program even with some static or noise and it is much easier to get in a car than digital signals so your answer is that analog signals are easier to get than digital but it all depends where you live.

  2. Jonathan

    Great post but one small point: digital signals will still be terrestrial broadcast, so it’s not the END of broadcast TV, just analog TV. Extra special thanks for the Canadian spectrum map. I’d been wanting one.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’ve seen them, though I don’t own one right now. I’m not sure where you can get one, though you might be able to get some large poster printer to make one from the PDF.

  3. Bill_the_Bear

    I used to have one of those wall charts, but I can’t remember where I bought it. I’d suggest asking at a bookstore which sells federal government publications/maps, such as the one on the east side of University just above René-Lévesque, across from PVM. You could also drop a line to Industry Canada; maybe they sell them by mail.

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  5. mart

    We have basic free cable package that Vide@tron forgot to cut when previous tenants moved out 5 years ago. Is our adapter going to obsolete in 2011?

  6. steve81

    Most stations in the Toronto area are available digitally over the air (OTA).
    Not so for Montreal:

    For people that have an HDTV with an ATSC tuner, digital OTA is great. No need to pay for cable if all you need is the basic channels. In Montreal, you can only get Radio-Canada, CBC and TQS… if you are lucky. Unless it changed recently, Radio-Canada/CBC digital are broadcast from the antenna on top of the CBC tower, so if you’re on the other side of Mount Royal, you can’t get it. TQS digital transmission in Montreal is also weak as well and they plan to change that with the 2011 switch.

    Some people in Montreal have hooked up big roof antennas in order to get digital TV from Burlington/Plattsburgh:
    Works for some people.

  7. Ron

    I don’t see what the number of stations has to with digital TV. We can still have less channels and use even less bandwidth if you reduced the number of channels to 40 using digital. Digital TV works and looks better on a digital TV, so maybe flat screen TV are also a mistake. On a 52″ TV 480p looks 10 time better than the analog channel .

    I live in southern Ontario and could only get a couple of clear channels and a bunch of snowy ones. now I get them all crystal clear and couple more. One post above mentions the cliff effect. You get a perfect picture with a bad or great signal or not at all once the signal is to weak. That’s something to rave about not complain about.

  8. OScar

    I live near downtown Toronto and most of the GTA digital signals are good, except that I do get bad reception occasionally in the Evening and weekends. I do not get CITS & CBLFT (no loss really).

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  10. Dave

    I’m surprised there’s been no comments on CTV Montreal going “HD!!!”.

    But only on CABLE………

    I find it ironic that CTV Montreal chose one of the “evil cable companies”
    for their first digital venture, while flipping the bird to people who watch
    via antenna.

    You can probably attribute this decision to the “low-hanging-fruit” method,
    but IMHO, if you’re a feudin’ with someone, you don’t smooch their butt.

  11. Elaine

    We live just outside of Prince Albert SK Canada on an acreage. We only use rabbit ears on top of our television for reception.

    After August 2011 will we still be able to get coverage with the rabbit ears?
    Thank you.

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  13. Eye Wanda

    What is the REAL reason for the “change over”? Have you asked yourself the question WHY is analogue television being switched off eventually, and we are only allowed digital TV? Why are we not allowed to keep analogue because the two work perfectly OK together at the moment?

    Is it so that we can be spied on?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Is it so that we can be spied on?

      Considering that digital television is unidirectional (meaning there’s no way for data to go from your television set back to their transmitter), I don’t see how it can be used for spying.

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  16. GUEST 123

    I am an engineering technologist and work in the the electronics/telecom industries.
    I still agree with you I think its a total crock, yeah so some people may get better pictures. Did anyone stop to think that the system we adopted was the one JAPAN rejected 12 years ago? So I GUESS its GREEN throwing out all of those old sets not to mention the thousands of dollars WASTED in transmitter equipment! I think this was all done as a cash grab by TV and broadcast manufacturers as well as greedy gov’ts who stand to make A TON of money auctioning off frequency bands!!! Maybe its time they clued in that they work for US not the other way around.
    I get more and more disgusted with things the older I get.

  17. bobbee

    We live in a deep valley 60km NW of Toronto. Before conversion to digital we received three good channels (CBLT ch 5, Global ch 6, CKVR ch 3). Many years ago I installed a UHF yagi on my 60 ft tower to try to receive some of the UHF channels off the CN tower. The only thing I got was reflection from a hill to my northwest. I just found out that with conversion to digital, channels were reallocated. CBLT is now Ch 20, CKVR is now Ch 10, I haven’t yet found Global’s Brantford transmitter listed. Now that CBC is on UHF, have we lost it?

  18. guest

    After the switch over in Montreal….I lost 3 channels with my new flat screen t.v. I’m surprised I don’t get Global in both my flat screen t.v’s….the new one bought just after Boxing Day.
    And no….I don’t have cable or satellite. I still use my rabbit ears for both new t.v’s.


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