Analog TV Shutdown May Be Delayed

After House Republicans blocked a vote to approve the delay in the analog shutdown this week, I saw headlines such as House Puts the Kibosh on DTV Delay and February 17th—still a go for DTV deadline indicating the Feb. 17, 2009 date would not change.

However, don’t take this to the bank just yet.

“I am very disappointed the House Republicans blocked the DTV extension today in the House,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, House Commerce Committee chairman. “Their vote has wasted valuable time and will cause needless confusion for consumers. A clear majority in Congress supports postponing the transition and providing assistance to the millions of households that are unprepared. I am working with the Obama Administration and congressional leadership to explore all available options."

Late Thursday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a slightly modified version of the transition delay bill it had passed earlier this week.

“The Senate has acted quickly and in a bipartisan way to put the needs of consumers first,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. “Senator [Kay Bailey] Hutchison’s leadership was critical to getting this bill passed. We addressed the concerns of our colleagues, public safety, broadcasters and most importantly, consumers. The House will have a second chance next week to implement this delay, I am hopeful they will pass this bill so we can send it to President Obama.”

Hutchison is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and voiced her position on additional delays for the planned switch away from analog television broadcasting.

“Senator Rockefeller and I, as the Chairman and the Ranking Member of Commerce Committee, have worked on a bill that will delay for three months, basically until June 12, this transition.” Hutchison said. “It also allows people to apply even if they have coupons that are expired. They can reapply and get coupons. But Mr. President, I do want to serve notice that I will not support another delay in implementation. By now, people, have had the notice and we’ve done everything to mitigate the cost of this transition. I’ve talked with Senator Rockefeller about that and I think we are in agreement that now is the time for people to get their coupons and boxes because on June 12 this transition will be made.”

Many broadcasters will be relieved by Senator Hutchison’s statement that the June 12 date will not be extended. As previously discussed in RF Report, maintaining analog service requires not only a significant amount of power, but also creates additional maintenance costs. Several TV stations are now operating at reduced analog power due to the huge expense of replacing failed components in analog transmitters.

Some transmitting tubes can cost more than $30,000 and it makes little sense to move forward with their procurement and replacement if the transmitter’s life is to be measured in weeks or months. It may be difficult for some struggling TV stations to stretch things for even three months, and maintaining analog service beyond June 12 could create extreme difficulties.

The revised Senate bill is likely to be voted on in the House next week. If the House leadership decides to present it under regular rules, which require only a majority vote for approval, the revised Senate bill is sure to be approved (if the 258-168 House vote in support of the delay is any indication) and stations will not need to shut down their analog facilities until June 12, 2009.

The delay poses several problems for broadcasters. Many stations have not built out full service DTV facilities on their current digital channels in anticipation of returning to their analog channels post-transition. The FCC didn't require that these interim DTV facilities match the post-transition DTV coverage and many high-band VHF stations will be placing digital service on their old analog channels.

While the shutdown extension would not prohibit a station from ending its analog service before June 12, it isn't clear these stations would be able to operate their post-transition DTV facility at full power, if at all, on their established analog channels, as this could cause interference to an analog channel in the same or adjacent market.

Adding to this problem are the many reports showing that weak signal DTV coverage is not equal to analog coverage, even if coverage studies show full replication. People are willing to watch poor analog pictures, but due to the “cliff effect” associated with DTV, they may not have a picture at all. Maximizing DTV facilities will improve this situation, but some stations may not be able to maximize because of potential interference to analog stations. In addition, a large number of maximization applications are still awaiting FCC approval. And some of these require approval from Canada or Mexico regulatory bodies.

Stations returning to high-band VHF channels post-transition are especially susceptible to this problem. Coverage studies may show relatively low power high-band VHF DTV is able to replicate analog coverage, while in reality, and as I've shown in my recent RF Technology column in TV Technology, significantly higher power is required to reach indoor TV antennas that may have had poor, but adequate, analog reception.

The proposed legislation would allow broadcasters to maintain analog transmission after February, but provides, as far as I can see, no funding to cover the significant costs broadcasters will have to bear in continuing analog broadcasting. While helping many consumers—especially those watching stations that are still waiting for FCC approval to increase DTV coverage—it will complicate the DTV transition for stations wanting to return to their analog channels. After the President and Congress have gone to such effort to extend analog broadcasting past Feb. 17, it is clear that broadcasters will feel pressured to maintain analog signals for at least part of the three month extension in spite of extra costs and complications.

The FCC can help by quickly acting on pending DTV applications. Broadcasters can help by seizing the opportunity provided by the legislation to maintain analog coverage to viewers in markets with a high concentration of unprepared off-air viewers. A staggered transition, with some markets shutting off analog before the extended June 12 date, will provide valuable information and help minimize the impact on viewers depending on free off-air television.

Read all of Doug Lung's RF Reporthere.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. As vice president of Broadcast Technology for NBCUniversal Local, H. Douglas Lung leads NBC and Telemundo-owned stations’ RF and transmission affairs, including microwave, radars, satellite uplinks, and FCC technical filings. Beginning his career in 1976 at KSCI in Los Angeles, Lung has nearly 50 years of experience in broadcast television engineering. Beginning in 1985, he led the engineering department for what was to become the Telemundo network and station group, assisting in the design, construction and installation of the company’s broadcast and cable facilities. Other projects include work on the launch of Hawaii’s first UHF TV station, the rollout and testing of the ATSC mobile-handheld standard, and software development related to the incentive auction TV spectrum repack.
A longtime columnist for TV Technology, Doug is also a regular contributor to IEEE Broadcast Technology. He is the recipient of the 2023 NAB Television Engineering Award. He also received a Tech Leadership Award from TV Tech publisher Future plc in 2021 and is a member of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society and the Society of Broadcast Engineers.