Posted in Montreal, My articles, TV

Even more details about Montreal’s digital TV transition

Updated Feb. 23, 2012, with the latest information on transmitters (CKMI now on permanent antenna, CFTU transmitting in digital).

Mount Royal tower is about to go digital

I wrote a feature that appeared in Saturday’s Gazette (Page E3, for those clipping) about the transition from analog television to digital, whose deadline is Aug. 31.

The main story focuses mainly on how local broadcasters are coping with the transition. It’s a big endeavour, and with less than 10% of Canadian households still using antennas to get their television service, it’s difficult to justify the cost (in the neighbourhood of $1 million per transmitter, but varying widely) of replacing the analog with digital.

That’s to say nothing about the consumers, many of whom are on the lower end of the income scale, who must now spend money on new equipment.

The sidebar focuses on consumers, and tries to explain how people can prepare. If you haven’t already heard 1,000 times, cable and satellite subscribers are unaffected. If you get your service by antenna, you either need a TV with a digital ATSC tuner (most new HDTVs have one) or a digital converter box.

My editor was very generous with the assigned length (in all it clocks in at a bit under 2,000 words), but even then there’s a lot of information I had to leave out, including a few conversations I had with actual TV viewers. I’ll try to include most of that information here.

The digital transition in Montreal

First, here’s how the digital transition is going for the nine television stations broadcasting in Montreal (updated 9am Sept. 1):

  • Five (CFCF/CTV, CFTM/TVA, CIVM/Télé-Québec, CFJP/V and CJNT/Metro 14) have completed the transition, switching off their analog transmitters and replacing them with digital ones that are now transmitting. They should all be at full power from their permanent antennas.
  • Three (CBMT/CBC, CBFT/Radio-Canada,CKMI-1/Global) have shut down their analog transmitters and have digital ones operating on their permanent assigned channels, but are not yet operating from what will be their permanent antenna on top of the Mount Royal tower. (CBMT and CBFT are also running at reduced power.) Those who don’t get these signals now may see that improve over the coming weeks.
  • One (CFTU/Canal Savoir) has been given a two-month extension to make the transition. It is still broadcasting in analog until the digital transmitter begins running.

Here’s more detail, by station. A few explanations first:

  • Power: Digital transmitter power for most of these stations is considerably less than analog power. That doesn’t necessarily mean the digital signal will be weaker. Because digital transmitters are far more efficient than analog ones (about 10 times in the case of UHF transmitters), the same range can be achieved with much less power. Most stations expect their coverage area will remain about the same. I use “authorized power” here to denote the average effective radiated power authorized by Industry Canada. The actual transmitters could be operating at less power than this.
  • Virtual channels: It’s kind of complicated, but the ATSC digital standard allows stations on one channel to pretend they’re on another. This is used so that stations that must change channels as part of the digital transition can show up on TVs under their former analog channels. So CBMT (CBC Montreal), for example, will actually be transmitting on Channel 21, but will appear on TV sets as Channel 6.1. The “.1″ denotes the digital subchannel, because digital transmitters allow more than one channel to be transmitted. So far no Canadian broadcaster is taking advantage of this.
  • CRTC cost estimate: The CRTC commissioned a study by engineers to determine a rough idea of the cost of changing transmitters to digital. This cost depends on a number of factors, including the pre- and post-transition channels. It should be taken with a truckload of salt, because it doesn’t take into account any particular characteristics of individual transmitters.
  • PSIP: The Program and System Information Protocol is a system that allows digital transmitters to send information to TV receivers. Among them, content ratings and program descriptions, like you’d find in a digital cable or satellite menu. Its use by broadcasters in Canada is mixed, because it’s not seen as a necessity.

CBMT

Status: Transmitting in digital on permanent channel but temporary antenna.

  • Brand: CBC Montreal
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 6
    • Authorized power: 100,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down 12am Sept. 1
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 20
    • Authorized power: 57,410W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: switched to post-transitional channel on or before Aug. 27
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 21
    • Authorized power: 436,340W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower (same as analog)
    • Status: active at reduced power (100,000W)
  • Virtual digital channel: 6.1
  • Resolution: 720p
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: No
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (606), Bell TV (896/1030), Bell Fibe (1206)
  • Digital transmitter location: Mount Royal tower
  • CRTC cost estimate: $3,191,581
  • Retransmitters: Dozens of analog stations throughout Quebec (CBC Montreal is the only CBC station in Quebec with original programming). Digital transition postponed until Aug. 31, 2012 in the following mandatory markets: Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Saguenay
  • Digital transition website: http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/dtv/Montreal_CBC.shtml

CBMT has had its digital transmitter up since 2005, but it’s waiting until Aug. 31 to shut down the analog one. While the transition in Montreal is expected to happen on schedule, CBC decided it didn’t have the money to make the switch for retransmitters (including Quebec City and Sherbrooke). The CRTC said it would allow a one-year extension so the analog to keep the analog transmitters running so they wouldn’t have to be shut down, but the CBC’s Steven Guiton told me they will probably just ask for another extension when that one comes up.

I asked José Breton, the guy who protested outside CBC in Quebec City demanding they not shut down the transmitter there because he wanted to watch Hockey Night in Canada, about the extension. I thought he would be happy, but turns out he’s not. “It’s a false compromise,” he said. Instead, the CRTC should have forced CBC/Radio-Canada to setup digital transmitters in mandatory markets before the deadline instead of saving money for “some white-collars’ salaries”. He also suggested the CRTC was being influenced by cable and satellite lobbyists.

CBMT’s digital transmitter has already switched to its permanent channel (which means digital tuners must rescan for channels to find it).

CBC Montreal’s newscast has been 16:9 since 2009, though the quality of the video during newscasts is poor even by standard definition standards.

As noted in the guide in The Gazette, because CBMT transmits in analog on Channel 6, which is just below the FM radio band, its audio channel can be heard at 87.75MHz. Most FM radios allow you to tune that low, even though the band ends at 88 MHz. The only perceivable difference between the audio channel of an analog TV transmission and an FM broadcast radio transmission is that the former has a lower volume. So people can do things like listen to Hockey Night in Canada on the radio. This will, unfortunately, end on Sept. 1 when the analog transmitter goes down.

CFCF

Status: Transmitting digital-only as of Aug. 31.

  • Brand: CTV Montreal
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 12
    • Authorized power: 325,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down 12:05am Aug. 31 (this was pushed up a day, was originally to be Sept. 1)
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 51
    • Authorized power: 2,700W
    • Location: Bell-Nexacor tower on Remembrance Rd.
    • Status: reduced power significantly around Aug. 27, shut down just after midnight Aug. 31
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 12 (same as analog)
    • Authorized power: 10,600W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower (same as analog)
    • Status: active as of 12:50am Aug. 31
  • Virtual digital channel: 12.1
  • Resolution: 1080i
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: Program names, descriptions and ratings
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (607), Bell Fibe (1205)
  • Digital transmitter location: Mount Royal tower
  • CRTC cost estimate: $440,619
  • Retransmitters: None
  • Digital transition website: http://www.ctv.ca/digitalswitch/

CFCF setup a temporary digital transmitter in January specifically so it could get it on air before the Super Bowl to take advantage of simultaneous substitution in HD. In a letter dated Jan. 4, 2011, CTV VP Kevin Goldstein specifically cited the Super Bowl as reason to expedite the application:

CTV respectfully requests that the Commission consider this application in an expedited manner as we hope to have Commission approval on or before January 28th, 2011 in advance of the broadcast of the Super Bowl on February 6th, 2011. CTV holds the Canadian broadcast rights to one of the most high profile sporting and broadcasting events of the year and approval of this application will rectify some concerns we have with respect to the requirements of certain BDU’s to carry out simultaneous substitution during this broadcast.

CRTC gave approval on Jan. 21. The digital transmitter went live on Jan. 28. It’s on a small tower on Remembrance Rd. near Beaver Lake, about 400 metres from the main Mount Royal tower and with an antenna about 100 metres below where their analog one is.

CTV Montreal General Manager Don Bastien said everything is ready to go. The digital transmitter has been tested twice and all that’s left is to wait until the cutoff date. The analog transmitter is set to shut down at 12:05am on Sept. 1 – just after the end of the late newscast – and the permanent digital transmitter (using the same antenna and same channel) should be up 45 minutes later, he said.

Technical changes – including replacing the antenna, which had been in use since 1961 – happened last summer. Television transmitters on the Mount Royal tower were shut down overnight throughout the summer months as the tower was altered to prepare for the digital transition.

Bastien said the coverage area of the digital transmitter should be about the same as the analog one was (exact comparisons are difficult because of how reception of analog and digital signals differs).

CKMI-1

Status: Transmitting digital-only using temporary antenna as of Aug. 17.

  • Brand: Global Montreal
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 46
    • Authorized power: 33,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down Aug. 13
  • Transitional/post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 15 (was assigned 51, but got approval to use 15 instead)
    • Authorized power: 8,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower (was on temporary antenna lower on tower until mid-February)
    • Status: active since Aug. 17
  • Virtual digital channel: 15.1 (Global is the only Montreal station to choose a virtual channel different from its analog one)
  • Resolution: 1080i (Subchannel 15.2 offers 480i SD)
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: Program names, descriptions and ratings
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (608, replaced Global Toronto HD on Aug. 23)
  • Power (average ERP): 8,000W
  • Digital transmitter location: Mount Royal tower
  • CRTC cost estimate: $280,544/$380,994
  • Retransmitters:
    • Quebec City (CKMI), Channel 20, digital as of Aug. 13
    • Sherbrooke (CKMI-2), Channel 11, digital as of Aug. 10
  • Digital transition website: http://www.shaw.ca/dtv/

Global Montreal used to be based in Quebec City (which is why Quebec City’s station is CKMI and Montreal’s is CKMI-1). Canwest bought the station and setup transmitters in Montreal and Sherbrooke to create the regionally-licensed Global Quebec network. It then asked the CRTC to be re-licensed as a Montreal station so it could be allowed to seek local advertising.

CKMI-1 was the first of the nine Montreal stations to shut down its analog transmitter. It went dark on Aug. 13, and the digital transmitter started transmitting on Aug. 17. Global has been announcing that it’s now on Channel 15, and its virtual digital channel is 15.1. Its satellites in Quebec City and Sherbrooke had already made the transition earlier in the month. Both remain on the same channel.

Videotron has been carrying Global HD from Toronto, which has been kind of a strange situation where Montreal viewers have been seeing Toronto local newscasts unless they switch to the standard-definition version of the channel. Videotron replaced Global Toronto HD with Global Montreal HD on Aug. 23. (Global was so happy it sent out a press release on the subject.)

Global Montreal’s newscast is technically in high definition. The opening graphics are HD, as is the weather report (which is done out of Toronto). Master control is in Edmonton (I made a mistake in the original article, saying it was Vancouver – it switched to Edmonton in May 2009), which has HD facilities. Even the studio cameras are HD (the newscasts are anchored in Montreal, in a green room), but the data connection between Montreal and Edmonton isn’t fast enough to deliver an HD signal.

Thankfully, Global is owned by Shaw, which has experience in telecommunications. A fat pipe is being setup, edit suites in Montreal will be upgraded and HD field cameras will be issued. “We are optimistic that our newscast will be produced in HD by the end of the year,” said Shaw Media’s Dervla Kelly. Once that happens, CFCF will be the only station in Montreal that produces a newscast that’s not in HD.

“We’ve increased our over-the-air coverage area in all three markets,” Kelly said of Global’s Quebec stations. “More viewers will have access to our digital signal than had access to our analog signals.”

CJNT

Status: Transmitting digital-only as of Aug. 27.

  • Brand: Metro 14
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 62
    • Authorized power: 11,000W
    • Location: roof of building next to Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down morning of Aug. 27
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 69
    • Status: never used
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 49
    • Authorized power: 4,000W
    • Location: roof of CTV building next to Mount Royal tower (same as analog)
    • Status: began operation on evening of Aug. 27
  • Virtual digital channel: 62.1
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: No
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico channel 614
  • Power (average ERP):
  • Digital transmitter location: Roof of CTV transmitter building next to Mount Royal tower
  • CRTC cost estimate: $273,881
  • Retransmitters: None
  • Digital transition website: http://www.metro14.ca/

You know CJNT, right? The multicultural station? It was scooped up by Canwest after failing to make money for many years, and it continued to not make money. Canwest threatened to shut it down along with the rest of its secondary E! network, but a company called Channel Zero bought it and sister station CHCH Hamilton for a grand total of $12. Since then, the station has produced no original programming, and has been embarrassingly repeating local shows from 2009 to fulfill its CRTC requirements. It has promised new programming for this fall, though, and some of it has already begun.

Metro 14 (the number is reference to its Videotron digital cable channel) went pretty well as scheduled for its digital transition. According to its schedule, the analog transmitter was to be shut off at 7am on Aug. 27 and the digital one was to be operational by 6pm. The delay was necessary to retune the antenna from Channel 62 to Channel 49. CHCH Broadcast Operations Manager Wayne Rabishaw, who is handling the CJNT transition along with four transmitters of CHCH, said the coverage area would actually greatly improve with the change, almost doubling, because the antenna they’re using (which the station originally got used) was actually better for Channel 49 than Channel 62.

CHCH itself made the switch on Aug. 15, and Rabishaw said they had already gotten hundreds of phone calls from viewers. London and Muskoka were scheduled for this week, and Ottawa is set for Aug. 31. Their four remaining retransmitters (Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay and Timmins) will stay analog for now.

Rabishaw couldn’t put a price on the CJNT transition, but said switching all five transmitters will cost Channel Zero “several million dollars”.

CJNT is transmitting in HD, but so far I haven’t spotted any actual HD programming on it. (Lots of programming in SD with black bars around it, though.) Rabishaw said programming will be in HD.

Metro 14’s note says Videotron will add the station’s HD feed on Channel 614 on Aug. 30. Cogeco will also begin carrying the station in standard and high-definition, but the satellite companies (Bell and Shaw) are only taking it in standard definition for now.

Once Videotron adds the HD feed, viewers can expect simultaneous substitution to begin in HD for American programming carried on CJNT. This includes 20/20, Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

CBFT

Status: Transmitting digital-only, on temporary antenna.

  • Brand: Radio-Canada Montréal
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 2
    • Authorized power: 100,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down at 12am Sept. 1 (the last thing that aired was a beer ad)
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 19
    • Authorized power: 54,970W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower (temporary antenna at base of tower)
    • Status: active
  • Post-transitional digital channel:
    • Channel: 19 (same as transitional)
    • Authorized power: 447,820W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: active at reduced power (100,000W)
  • Virtual digital channel: 2.1
  • Resolution: 720p
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: Program titles, but no descriptions
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (602), Bell TV (1802/860), Bell Fibe (1112), Shaw Direct (244/380)
  • Digital transmitter location: Mount Royal tower
  • CRTC cost estimate: $4,266,294 (highest in Montreal)
  • Retransmitters: 28, none in mandatory markets or above Channel 16
  • Digital transition website: http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/tvn/montreal_radio-canada.shtml

Like CBC, Radio-Canada has had a digital transmitter in Montreal since 2005. Since the transitional and post-transitional channels are the same, it is effectively operating in post-transitional mode, though I’m guessing from my signal meter that it’s not operating at the post-transitional power level yet. At nearly 450,000W, it will be the most powerful digital television transmitter in Quebec.

Just about all of Radio-Canada’s local and national programming has been in HD for some time.

Radio-Canada, like the CBC, will keep analog transmitters running in mandatory markets where it doesn’t originate programming. This mostly affects the Prairies, southern Ontario and Atlantic Canada. All mandatory markets in Quebec will transition.

Radio-Canada also has two full-power transmitters that are on channels in the 52-69 range: Sainte-Famille and Lac-Etchemin, both retransmitters of CBVT (Quebec City) and both on Channel 55. The Lac Etchemin transmitter will become low-power, staying on the same channel, while the Sainte-Famille transmitter will be shut down.

CFTM

Status: Transmitting digital-only as of Sept. 1.

  • Brand: TVA Montréal
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 10
    • Authorized power: 325,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down 12:01am Sept. 1
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 59
    • Authorized power: 6,140W
    • Location: TVA building (1600 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E.)
    • Status: never used
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 10 (same as analog)
    • Authorized power: 11,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower (same as analog)
    • Status: active as of 12:35am Sept. 1
  • Virtual digital channel: 10.1
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: No
  • Resolution: 1080i
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (604), Bell TV (1804/861), Bell Fibe (1115), Shaw Direct (245/381)
  • Digital transmitter location: Mount Royal tower
  • CRTC cost estimate: $440,619
  • Retransmitters: None (but this is the flagship station of the TVA network)
  • Digital transition website: http://tva.canoe.ca/emissions/transitiontelenumerique/

TVA has, strangely, not been broadcasting in digital yet (or if it has, it’s such low power that nobody has seen it). The plan is to make the switch directly on the night of Aug. 31 to Sept. 1. TVA has to coordinate its switch with CTV, since both use the same antenna.

TVA’s local and national newscasts and other programming have been in HD for quite a while. Because it doesn’t simulcast American programming, it doesn’t need to setup a digital transmitter to take advantage of simultaneous substitution.

Across Quebec, TVA owns six stations, five of which will switch to digital (Montreal, Quebec, Sherbrooke, Saguenay, Trois-Rivières) and one will not (Rimouski). The transmitter in Saguenay (CJPM) will run at first on a temporary digital transmitter, and then a full transmitter by Oct. 31, TVA’s Serge Sasseville said. You can get channel information in this PDF file.

There are also four TVA affiliates not owned by Groupe TVA. Two stations in western Quebec are owned by RNC Media and are in mandatory markets (Gatineau and Rouyn-Noranda).

Two others in eastern Quebec are owned by Télé Inter-Rives:

  • CIMT in Rivière du Loup (a mandatory market), which has eight retransmitters, including one that fills a hole in coverage in the city of Rivière du Loup, and one in Edmunston, NB.
  • CHAU in Carleton-sur-Mer (which is not), which has 11 retransmitters around the Gaspé peninsula and northern New Brunswick.
Even though the CRTC’s requirements would only force Télé Inter-Rives to switch its transmitters in Rivière du Loup to digital and move its retransmitter in Les Escoumins off of Channel 57, it has applied to switch all of its transmitters to digital. The transition for CHAU and its retransmitters has been delayed until mid-November due to delays in getting equipment. But since these are all transmitters that could stay analog if they wanted to, there’s no deadline for making the change. CIMT and its retransmitters are still set for a Sept. 1 transition.

CFJP

Status: Transmitting digital-only as of Aug. 31.

  • Brand: V
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 35
    • Authorized power: 697,000W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down 11:31pm Aug. 30
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 42
    • Authorized power: 13,900W
    • Location: Sherbrooke St. E. (corner of Amherst St.)
    • Status: shut down Aug. 30
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 35 (same as analog)
    • Authorized power: 13,750W (note this is actually slightly less than transitional transmitter)
    • Location: Sherbrooke St. E. (same as transitional)
    • Status: active as of 11:35pm Aug. 30
  • Virtual digital channel: 35.1
  • Resolution: 1080i
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: No
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (605), Bell TV (1803/862), Bell Fibe (1114), Shaw Direct (248/388)
  • Digital transmitter location: Sherbrooke and Berri Sts. (analog transmitter is on Mount Royal tower, but digital one will stay downtown for “strategic reasons”, the network says)
  • CRTC cost estimate: $280,713/$463,894
  • Retransmitters: None

V was kind of hard to get a hold of for this article. Emails and phone calls went unanswered until I finally heard from spokesperson Tim Ringuette, who blamed the network’s fall launch for keeping him busy. Ringuette said the station has moved its digital transmitter off the Mount Royal tower site. “Décision stratégique,” he wrote in a brief email. This most likely translates to “money” and V’s reluctance to spend a lot of it renting expensive space on the Mount Royal tower (not to mention all the engineering work that goes into setting up a transmitter next to a bunch of other high-powered transmitters).

Ringuette said the coverage area should be almost identical to the analog signal now. I’m very skeptical that a transmitter on a downtown building (more than 200 metres lower in elevation) at a tiny fraction of the power can have the same coverage, particularly because I don’t receive the digital transmitter at all right now.

CIVM

Status: Transmitting digital-only as of Sept. 1

  • Brand: Télé-Québec
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 17
    • Authorized power: 889,500W
    • Location: Mount Royal tower
    • Status: shut down for good at 1:30am Sept. 1
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 27
    • Authorized power: 8,956W
    • Location: Olympic Stadium
    • Status: shut down just after midnight Sept. 1
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 26
    • Authorized power: 160,600W
    • Location: Olympic Stadium (same as transitional)
    • Status: active as of 2:45am Sept. 1
  • Virtual digital channel: 17.1
  • Resolution: 1080i
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: Program names and descriptions
  • Available in HD on: Videotron illico (603), Bell TV (1839/799), Bell Fibe (1138)
  • Digital transmitter location: Olympic Stadium (analog transmitter is on Mount Royal tower, transitional digital one has been broadcasting from Olympic Stadium and will stay there post-transition)
  • CRTC cost estimate: $522,438/$676,519
  • Retransmitters: 11 (All Télé-Québec stations are effectively retransmitters of CIVM, and Télé-Québec plans to switch all of them to digital, regardless of market size)
  • Digital transition website: http://transitionnumerique.telequebec.tv/

Télé-Québec is the only one of the four French Quebec networks that has committed to transitioning all its transmitters to digital, regardless of market size. “La transition au numérique est notre priorité,” said spokesperson Catherine Leboeuf. “Il s’agit du plus important changement technologique à court terme.”

Digital transmitters are running in Montreal and Quebec City, the rest are scheduled to transition by Sept. 1.

Two exceptions are CIVB Rimouski and CIVB-1 Grand Fonds (which serves Rivière du Loup but is not considered a mandatory market station). They will be switching Sept. 7 and Sept. 15, respectively, and will maintain analog signal until their transition. Their website has a breakdown by transmitter.

The Montreal transmitter was setup on Olympic Stadium instead of Mount Royal and will remain there. The signal is very strong on the eastern side of the city, but those on the western side of the mountain are reporting trouble receiving it.

CFTU

Status: Transmitting digital-only as of Feb. 23. Transition deadline had been extended twice by the CRTC because of work on the tower.

  • Brand: Canal Savoir
  • Analog transmitter:
    • Channel: 29
    • Authorized power: 10,000W
    • Location: Université de Montréal tower
    • Status: shut down around Feb. 22-23
  • Transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 54
    • Status: never used
  • Post-transitional digital transmitter:
    • Channel: 29 (same as analog)
    • Authorized power: 387W
    • Location: Université de Montréal tower
    • Status: active as of Feb. 23
  • Virtual digital channel: 29.1
  • Resolution: 480i (this is the only transmitter in Montreal not transmitting in HD)
  • Broadcasting program information via PSIP: Program names, some descriptions
  • Not available in HD on cable/satellite
  • Digital transmitter location: Université de Montréal
  • CRTC cost estimate: $210,606
  • Retransmitters: None
  • Digital transition website: http://www.canal.qc.ca/passage_au_numerique.php

Canal Savoir had the most interesting transition story, so much so that I made it the lead of my article. General Manager Sylvie Godbout explained to me that, you see, they wanted to make the transition deadline, but haven’t been able to access their transmitter because (1) the university is removing asbestos in the tower, and (2) a quartet of young peregrine falcons was just born there and couldn’t be disturbed by construction work. (They’re not technically endangered, but they’re considered at risk, depending on the region and subspecies.)

The asbestos work makes sense. The university decided to do it in August when there weren’t that many students around. The birds are just funny. In researching the article, I discovered that there’s even a blog dedicated to them. They’re named Tawodi, Rick, Éole and Altius, they’re all boys and were hatched in early May. You can see videos of their development if you go back a few pages on the blog.

So the CRTC has “graciously” given them an extension until Oct. 31. Godbout said the plan is to get it done before the end of September. Until then, the analog signal will keep running. (UPDATE: The station received an extension until December, and then another until March 31, as work on the tower caused more delays. It finally started transmitting around 2:30pm on Feb. 23, according to reports.)

A station run mostly by volunteers with an annual budget of $1.2 million, Canal Savoir would seem the least likely to want to spend a lot of money on a new transmitter. Godbout didn’t pretend as though the money wouldn’t have been better spent on programming, but she said they’ve known about this coming for three years and have been setting money aside for it. She wouldn’t say how much it’s going to cost (mostly because she doesn’t know exactly), but it wasn’t anywhere near the $1 million a transmitter figure that has been cited by the major broadcasters.

Canal Savoir is saving money, Godbout said, thanks in large part to assistance from Télé-Québec (Godbout used the term “graciously” more than once). Their analog transmitter – running for 25 years – was a used one from the provincial public broadcaster, and their technical help has also come from them. Though the station will have to buy a new digital transmitter, it will get help installing it.

Among the work that needs to be done is to reinforce the base of the antenna. Not easily done without disturbing the nest of some peregrine falcons that sits on the same tower.

Godbout also looked on the bright side: the old transmitter is the size of a fridge, and the new one will be smaller and generate much less heat, while serving the same population.

Though, Godbout said, she’s going to have to buy herself a digital converter box. Not because she doesn’t have cable service, but just so she can check on her station’s transmitter from home.

Stores: What DTV transition?

I stopped by a few electronics stores to see how they were promoting the converter boxes people would need to get their TV signals after the transition. I was puzzled to see not one of them was actually promoting this, just a week before the end of analog TV.

The Source, which is owned by Bell (and plugged by name in its DTV transition ads, which is kind of pushing an ethical boundary there), had plenty of information and displays about Bell TV service, but I found only a single DTV converter box, and a few tearsheets about the transition.

At Future Shop downtown, lots of shiny HDTVs, but no big signs explaining the DTV transition. I found the converters on a shelf next to cable and satellite boxes. There were about 20 of the cheap Access HD box, which is about the size of a portable CD player and costs $50, but has a reputation online of getting very hot and forgetting its digital channel programming every time it’s turned off. There were also some Coby boxes for sale for $60.

The flyers that came out this weekend for Future Shop and Best Buy also aren’t really plugging the DTV transition. Both have the Access HD box, but Future Shop has it on page 28 and Best Buy has it on the back page.

A media spokesperson for Future Shop nationally said sales of converter boxes are “exceeding expectations”. I’m guessing those expectations were fairly low.

When I went to Future Shop, I saw some people eyeing the converter boxes, spending quite a while trying to figure them out. I also overheard conversations between customers and staff looking at HDTVs that made it clear they had heard about the transition.

At Centre Hi-Fi, I stopped by, couldn’t find the converters, and when I asked a staff member where they were he said they were all sold out. A few days later they had more Access HD boxes in the store.

(“Access HD” is kind of a misnomer, implying that … well, it’s HD. It converts HD signals into analog, which is definitely not HD.)

My experience suggests you shouldn’t have too much of a problem finding converter boxes unless there’s a sudden rush for them (which could happen Sept. 1). Just stay away from The Source.

Digital subchannels: no thanks

One thing that kind of bugged me in the wake of the CBC transition delay was why Canadian stations weren’t using digital subchannels. The American networks are taking advantage of this technology, with a main channel carrying HD programming and multiple standard-definition channels with things like 24-hour weather, repeated newscasts or alternative network programming. But Canadian broadcasters aren’t using it.

I, and others, thought this would be a fine solution to CBC’s problem. In most of the markets affected, the CBC is setting up a digital transmitter for its other network. Quebec City has a Radio-Canada digital transmitter, Fredericton has a CBC digital transmitter, etc. Couldn’t they add a standard-definition subchannel with the other network on it? Quebec City’s Radio-Canada station would be in HD on 12.1, and CBC could be in SD on 12.2.

Martin Marcotte, CBC’s director of transmission (yeah, they have one of those), explained thusly:

CBC has looked at multiplexing of signals on a single transmitter.

First, that approach is not consistent with our general policy of building DTV transmitters only where we have originating stations.

Second, CBC-SRC wishes to transmit at the highest quality possible.

Third, it is correct that the subchannel would need to be SD so there would be a quality difference between the main channel and the subchannel.

Fourth, we are investigating mobile TV applications. Because a digital channel has a fixed bandwidth, any additions whether subchannels or mobile TV take away capacity from the main channel. That means a drop in quality. If you have a or more subchannels and mobile TV, the main channel essentially becomes SD or worse.

It sounds like a lot of different reasons, but it basically boils down to CBC not wanting to degrade the quality of its HD signal to fit in a secondary SD signal. While they would technically have to do that, I don’t think compressing an HD signal from 19 to 15 megabits per second results in such a dramatic decrease in quality that it can’t be done.

As far as the CRTC is concerned, there’s no rule against using digital subchannels (or “multiplexing”, as it calls the technology). But the subchannels would have to be licensed. So if, say, CTV wants to put its new CTV Two network as a subchannel to CFCF, it would probably have to get the okay from the CRTC before doing that.

Some people have suggested having specialty channels as digital subchannels (RDI on Radio-Canada’s subchannel, Bold on CBC’s, CTV News Channel on CFCF’s, etc.). That probably wouldn’t work out too well because of complaints from cable and satellite companies. They took RDI to task for having a livestream of the channel on its website, arguing that specialty channels shouldn’t be distributed freely if they expect cable and satellite companies to pay for them. A similar issue would arise if the channels would be broadcast freely. Or, alternatively, the cable and satellite companies could then decide or even be forced to treat the specialty channels as over-the-air broadcasters and carry them free of charge to subscribers. The broadcasters probably wouldn’t want that.

Is this even necessary?

In 2009, when the United States was set to do its digital transition, I argued that it seemed unnecessary. I understood the need to vacate part of the TV broadcast spectrum to sell off for better uses, but it seemed entirely possible to do this by simply reassigning channels 52 and above lower vacant channels in all but the biggest markets. How many markets do we have with more than 50 television channels, even if you include neighbouring markets?

It’s not like digital television takes less space. Each channel still gets the same 6 MHz allocation. The only difference is that more information can be packed into that space now, allowing for HD or subchannels.

I asked the CRTC about this. They sent me to the Heritage department. Chaouki Dakdouki, the director of distribution and access policy (and possibly the most punctual person in the world – he said he’d call me at 10:30am, and my phone rang at exactly 10:30am), mentioned that digital signals will reduce interference between signals that are on adjacent channels. This would allow channels on adjacent channels in the same market instead of being spaced two apart. If this is true, then it makes sense. But even then, there aren’t that many markets with more than a handful of stations – and few markets even have anything transmitting in the channels they want to get rid of.

It’s too late to change anything now, but I still think some stations are being forced to switch unnecessarily. Thankfully the CRTC came to its senses and isn’t forcing small towns to switch yet. The CBC has made it pretty clear most of those small transmitters will never be replaced with digital ones.

No coupon program

Those who were following the U.S. DTV transition might remember there was a coupon program that gave households discounts on converter boxes. It caused some ruckus because the government ran out of coupons (or, more accurately, ran out of money in the coupon program). This contributed to the decision to delay the transition a few months.

In Canada, there is no coupon program. No assistance for poor Canadians (or small broadcasters) to help them make the switch. It “wasn’t deemed necessary,” Dakdouki said, because of how few Canadians this would affect.

It’s a curious position. The proportion of Canadians using antenna TV is lower than the U.S., but not by that much. And the U.S. drastically underestimated how many people would need converters for the digital transition. Judging from what I heard from Future Shop, I think the same might be happening here.

Dakdouki also pointed to the fact that, of the 7% or 8% of Canadian television viewers who don’t have cable or satellite TV, about 35% of them watch programming online or through other means, which knocks this number down even further. I don’t know how this compares to the United States, but it’s interesting to note how fast other forms of television distribution are growing.

Antennas: Rabbit ears aren’t dead

This transition is being called the death of “rabbit ears”, but that’s not exactly true. There’s no difference between a digital and analog antenna, because the antenna is just a piece of wire cut to match a certain frequency. There’s no reason analog antennas, including rabbit ears, can’t be used for digital.

Antennas marketed as DTV-ready are different in two major ways: They have higher gain (which gives you a stronger signal whether in analog or digital), and they’re better tuned to UHF frequencies (channels 14+) than VHF ones (2-13). This takes into account the fact that many VHF analog stations are switching to UHF channels for their digital transmitters. Most rabbit-ear antennas have long telescoping rods for VHF and a small loop for UHF. It’s tempting to play with the length or position of the VHF antennas when watching a UHF station.

In Montreal, two stations are moving from VHF to UHF: CBMT (CBC) and CBFT (Radio-Canada). Two stations are staying on the (high) VHF band: CFCF (CTV) and CFTM (TVA). And the rest are staying on UHF.

The difference between Channel 2 (55 MHz) and Channel 10 (193 MHz) – the lowest post-transition channel in the city – is very significant, so there’s definitely a shift upward in terms of frequency range (which means a shift downward for antenna length). But rabbit ears that pick up a wide range of frequencies should be able to pick up most strong stations.

Since most stations won’t be at full power until after the Sept. 1 transition, I would recommend waiting until after that (maybe even give it a week or two in case things need to be fine-tuned) until deciding that your existing antenna is insufficient for the task.

Thoughts from viewers

I asked for input from antenna TV watchers while researching the article. I got plenty of responses, though most were people who either already had digital TVs or tuners or were planning to get them by the deadline. I had a vision of the perfect source for the story, a poor family with a dozen kids and an old TV, too poor to buy a converter but who sat by the old box and watched the broadcast networks for hours a day.

The closest I got to the perfect source was a man who wrote in to the paper in early August. The handwritten letter was left on my desk one night with a note from my editor saying that sometimes it just falls in your lap. I called him up, but while he was fine sharing his story, he didn’t want his name publicized. He didn’t want people to know he was on social assistance. Understandable, but frustrating. He said he’d probably buy a converter, and half-joked that he’d go around collecting refundable cans and bottles to raise the money.

For the record, here are some stories I’ve heard from the rest of you. Hardly a random sample, but interesting anecdotally:

  • Micah Galizia: “I watch OTA with an antenna and am very happy the DTV conversion is finally here. … My TV is about five years old.”
  • Regis Glorieux: “Cut the cord when I moved from Montreal to St-Eustache over 15 years ago. Been on antenna ever since. … Our TVs are old school analog tube, I bought a couple ATSC digital tuners a couple of years ago when the US stations were switching over to digital.”
  • Richard Archambault: “2 TVs (one is digital ready, small bedroom TV isn’t) – both with DVD players; 2 young children at home who watch TeleQuebec on TV … My wife and I usually watch the news, DVDs (including TV series), docs and movies on TeleQuebec and occasionally whatever other stuff may be on, but otherwise turn it off if there’s nothing. I used to not be able to afford cable (rather pay for Internet access), but I recently got a promotion and thus I could afford it now if I really wanted to, but.. I find that when I visit my mother’s house, sometimes I’ll spend 20 minutes flipping through channels and not really finding anything worthwhile. Ideally, if I could pick only the channels I wanted (NatGeo, Discovery, maybe a sports channel for the occasional Habs game midweek when CBC doesn’t play them usually, Spanish-language channels for my wife), and if I wasn’t limited by the amount of Canadian channels I am required to have (I invariably have too many non-Canadian channels when I test-run my channel selections on Bell or Videotron’s websites, for “pick your own” packages), then, and only then, would it be worth paying cable. So yeah, I figure I’ll get a new antenna eventually, sometime in September likely.”
  • Sarah Szefer: “Yes, I’m still using rabbit ears to access digital TV on my HDTV. Although I do get tons of interference from the Montreal Port (which means no US stations come in at all), I still can get flawless signals from Rad-Can, CBC, V, and Télé-Québec.”
  • Rose-Line Beaupre (Regina): “I own 2 television sets. I have bought a converter box for one TV only. It was about $90. It’s a very old TV and in a year or when the TV dies, I will buy a digital TV and put the converter to the other TV. The other TV is mostly used to watch movies when I’m working in my sewing room. I don’t watch a lot of TV and this is the first reason I don’t have cable. It’s not worth the money. I’m a Francophone native living in the Prairies. I essentially bought the converter box to be able to watch Radio-Canada – Regina and watch the national news from Montréal. The news are also available on the net but I don’t want to be limited to the computer in order to stay connected.”
  • Jack Nathanson: “I am still on analog. I get the impression that the digital broadcasts won’t actually begin until after September 1, so I won’t get a digital box until after the analog signals have stopped.” (I called Nathanson, and gave him some information about the transition. He lives on the fourth floor of a building in the Snowdon area, which should have pretty good reception. He says he used to watch a lot of TV, but does less so now. Still, he’ll probably get a converter box.)

Thanks for everyone who shared their experiences. Feel free to add your own below, or ask any questions you might have.

No conspiracies

In talking to people and reading comments about the digital transition, a lot of the ones familiar enough with media ownership believe broadcasters are manipulating the switch in some way as to force people to aligned cable and satellite services. (CTV is owned by Bell, Global is owned by Shaw, and TVA is owned by Quebecor, which also owns Videotron.) Strained logic has even been contradictory – some claiming that an early switch is pushing people to pay for TV because they no longer get analog signals, others claiming a late switch is pushing people to pay because they think they can’t get HD over the air.

The evidence indicates that, if anything, the opposite is true: broadcasters affiliated with cable companies are more likely to provide a better signal after the transition. Of the broadcasters on the Mount Royal tower that are not CBC/Radio-Canada (which runs the tower), it’s the two that aren’t affiliated with cable companies (CIVM/Télé-Québec and CFJP/V) that have decided to move off the tower, sacrificing coverage in order to save on rent. TVA, CTV and Global are staying on the tower, and are either replicating their coverage area or improving it slightly. (CJNT/Metro14 is not on the tower itself, but at its base, but its coverage has improved significantly.)

That’s not to say there isn’t some silliness going on. CTV’s transition information points people to buy Bell TV or converter boxes at The Source, which is also owned by Bell. Shaw is plugging their free satellite program (but not very much – they’re doing this as part of a promise to the CRTC, but the fewer satellites they give away, the less it costs them), but otherwise not pushing people to get Shaw service. (Global’s story about the DTV transition even points to competitors’ programs.) And TVA’s transition page makes no mention of the word “Videotron”.

But what really matters – and where the costs really lie – is the transmitters. The CRTC is forcing the switch, broadcasters have waited until the last month if not the last minute so their analog viewers have service as long as possible, and the digital transmitters for the most part try to replicate coverage area. In short, I don’t see much of a conspiracy here.

Further reading

UPDATE (Sept. 23): La Presse’s Hugo Dumas looks at Montreal francophones reporting reception problems (even with digital converters). He reports the following:

  • Radio-Canada in Quebec City has begun transmitting a UHF signal (Channel 25) to improve coverage.
  • The CBC/Radio-Canada/Global antenna on the Mount Royal tower should be operational by November.
  • Télé-Québec has increased power on its transmitter in Sherbrooke and will do the same in Gatineau to compensate for the hole west of Montreal created by moving Télé-Québec’s CIVM transmitter from Mount Royal to the Olympic Stadium.
  • V has ordered “new equipment” to help with its reception problems in Montreal. I’m skeptical that any equipment will adequately compensate for reducing antenna height by more than 200 metres and power level by 98%.

149 thoughts on “Even more details about Montreal’s digital TV transition

  1. Robert Anstee

    I had cable for 20 years and Satellite for 10, wasted thousands of dollars on those two services. I asked Shaw Direct( formerly Starchoice) to reduce my package to save money. Even with their “Essentials” package I had to spend $50 a month for my local channels. I dumped them and went back to rooftop antennas. They didn’t know what “Over The Air” meant !
    My current beef is with the CBC. Why did they move from 20.1 to 21.1 ? They are now interfering with WCAX on 22.1 from Vermont. Why don’t they move somewhere else where they won’t bother anyone ? Why did WVNY channel 22 ABC choose channel 13 of all places and run such low power ? I don’t get them at all. Channel 44 FOX isn’t much better either. Kudos to NBC and PBS though. Oh and incedentially, picture quality from a rooftop antenna beats anything I’ve seen from cable or satellite !

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      My current beef is with the CBC. Why did they move from 20.1 to 21.1 ?

      Because 21 was the channel they were assigned in the digital transition plan.

      Why did WVNY channel 22 ABC choose channel 13 of all places and run such low power ? I don’t get them at all. Channel 44 FOX isn’t much better either.

      It should be noted that both stations are owned by the same company. I’m guessing transmitter power is not a priority for them.

      Reply
  2. Robert Anstee

    Who do we complain to about the CBC being on 21.1 ? Is it the CRTC or Industry Canada ? What are the chances that we can get the CBC to move ? Obviously not much thought was given when 21.1 was chosen for the CBC with CBS already on 22.1. WCAX and WPTZ share the same antenna but WCAX typically comes in about 25% weaker at my home. At my store WCAX doesn’t come in at all while WPTZ comes in at 60% large closeby apartment buildings and leaves on trees not withstanding. I get PBS ok but not CBS, thank you CBC !

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Who do we complain to about the CBC being on 21.1 ? Is it the CRTC or Industry Canada ?

      I suppose you could complain to all three. But Industry Canada has already approved the technical parameters of CBC’s setup on Channel 21, so I doubt there will be much change. You could also complain to WCAX, hoping they can be convinced to change frequency.

      Reply

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