In less than two years, U.S. broadcast stations will need to comply with the federally mandated Feb. 17, 2009, deadline to begin transmitting to digital signals. Harris, a major provider of terrestrial transmitters and systems necessary to make it happen, says the industry still has a lot of work to do in order to comply.
The FCC has stated that it will fine stations or take back a license to broadcast for those who do not make the conversion to digital television on time.
For starters, the table of allotments, whereby stations are assigned a digital channel by the FCC, is not finalized. That's about eight months behind schedule of where the FCC thought the spectrum management effort would be at this point in the transition to the ATSC specification.
Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology for the Harris Broadcast Communications Division, said that there are approximately 500 stations that will have to move from their current channel assignment to a new one. Of that total, about 300 will move from the UHF to VHF spectrum, where most will be allocated the same number digital channel as they occupied in the analog world. The remainder will move from a UHF channel to another within the same UHF spectrum, to get that station within the core allotment outlined by the FCC. This was done to reserve some bandwidth for emergency services, such as fire and ambulance workers.
"That's quite a feat to do, and more so to think about doing it overnight," Adrick said, adding that a lot of planning and technically reconfiguring of transmitters is required to switch channels. This includes the addition of a new mask filter, a higher tower and other transmission-related products.
Harris has seen its transmission business suffer in the past few quarters, as the anticipated demand for new transmitters has not materialized as hoped. Tim Thorsteinson, president of the Harris Broadcast Communications Division, said the business is about one-third of what it was the past two years. This has caused the company to begin laying off about 150 total workers at its Quincy, IL, and Mason, OH, manufacturing facilities. It's also caused the company to think about eliminating the name "Broadcast" from its current division that handles such products and systems.
Thorsteinson said Harris could meet demand with fewer people if it needed to, but other suppliers, such as those that make mask filters (necessary to switch from analog to DTV channels), might not be able to keep up. There are only two such suppliers in the country, according to Harris, and if they started next week, they would be hard pressed to meet the mandated analog shutoff.
Adrick also said that when the first wave of DTV stations began building out their digital plants in the late 1990s and early 2000, there were roughly 30 transmitter installation crews. Today, there are less than 15, scattered among all transmitter manufacturers. That's not enough to handle all of the stations that have yet to make the transition.
To bring awareness to the problem, Harris has begun an industry-wide educational effort to let stations know that they can't wait too long. They have also spent some time with FCC Commissioners, who, Adrick said, seemed surprised that the transition was so far behind schedule.
At the upcoming NAB convention, Harris will introduce its third-generation Platinum-i series UHF digital solid-state transmitter. This unit targets stations that currently use the company's Platinum analog transmitters and want a lower-cost path to digital operation. By waving a red flag about the state of the DTV transition, Harris hopes to find buyers among these smaller market stations that have yet to covert.