Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Unfinished Work of the DTV Transition

If you go by the mass media, the story of the DTV transition has been told. I'll be surprised if I see another story on its aftermath on network news. Perhaps there'll be a small bit in the Business/Tech section of the newspaper (by and large, the story never graduated from there to the front page).

And yet there is still work to be done.

The two most obvious areas involve hooking up the stragglers and restoring lost reception. The stragglers issue will probably resolve itself fairly soon. Already we have gone from 2.5 million non-DTV households on June 14 to 2.1million on June 21, a gain of 400,000 households in a week. Luckily for the remainder, coupons are still available until July 31.

Loss of reception may take somewhat longer, even though we had plenty of advance warning from the experience of all those stations that transitioned between Feb 17 and June 12.

From everything I've read, it is clear that there is one major source of reception problems - stations going back to VHF from their original DTV assignments in the UHF spectrum. On the surface, this was an attractive idea for stations - VHF signals take a lot less power (thus, a lot less money) to go the same distance as UHF - but they are also far more subject to interference.

This has been causing unhappiness all over the place - just check out the comments attached to this TVNewsday story. "All over the place" definitely includes my place (the Boston area), as shown by the problems afflicting WHDH, our NBC affiliate. In this case, the station has actually had to reactivate their UHF signal and simulcast it with the VHF.

Elsewhere, the situation in Chigago and Philadelphia was bad enough for the FCC to send staffers to look at "all available options" to resolve things. I'm not sure what all those options are, but one thing that was done in Philly was to allow station WPVI to boost power to the maximum (30.6 kW) allowed in that region. How effective power boosts will be nationwide remains to be seen. If that doesn't fix it, what will? Perhaps more translators?The FCC does report some success with its recommended technique of double re-scanning (where you clear out the box by unplugging the antenna, re-scanning, unplugging the box itself, re-connting everything and then doing a second re-scan). This part of the story is not nearly over.

There are other issues as well. A small number of stations are actually not ready to transmit digitally and have gone dark (most are owned by one company in bankruptcy). The original Broadcasting & Cable article listed 35 stations, but four stations were later cut from the list. The FCC says it expects the stations not in bankruptcy to return to the air by the end of this year.

Challenges for some bring opportunities to others. In this case, the problems facing stations in getting their over-the-signal out to their usual OTA audience is creating an opportunity for cable, as a recent survey shows that 5% of US television households have already switched because of the transition, a number we can expect to rise if the current problems are not addressed soon.

Then we have the issue of DTV and portable devices that have previously received analog transmissions (different from "mobile DTV" that's been designed from scratch for handheld devices) . While I am just now beginning to see ads for DTV-enabled portable TVs (there was a $99 set advertised in today's CVS flyer), the installed base of portable TVs (long popular amongst campers and tailgators) has a problem - you need a battery-operated box that is small enough not to negate the advantages of portability. And if you're a camper who has installed your TV in your RV, you have your own set of issues. Then there are even smaller devices - radios that receive the audio portion of TV broadcasts. To illustrate, here's a story from someone who thought he was completely prepared for the transition, only to find something missing the first time (after June 12) he took his clip-on radio with him while running.

It should also be remembered that there is, in fact, still some analog broadcasting left, namely the low power stations. These have small audiences that have just gotten smaller, what with many converter boxes not having analog pass-through circuitry and with cable (which doesn't have to carry LP stations) nibbling away at the OTA audience. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps has just requested $1 million in part to prepare for these stations' transition (and the timetable for that is something I need to do more research on).

So, in fact, the story is not quite over yet, and there are still things to talk about. I don't have any regular publishing schedule in mind, but as significant events occur in the "wrapping up" of the above stories, I will come on from time to time to update their status. Thanks for reading!

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