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Canadian DTV Transition Problems

The CBC had a story last week, Digital Divide: DTV switch leaving some in dark that indicates there are some problems with Canada's DTV transition. The article starts with a story about a Toronto resident who built his own outdoor TV antenna, installed it himself, and is now enjoying HDTV over-the-air. John Opala describes his experience with the antenna he built for about $50 using plans off the Internet. "On Sunday night, I took it outside, leaned it against the house, pointed it at the CN Tower and watched the CBC news in astonishing image quality. The next weekend, I had it on the roof."

Not all viewers will be so lucky when analog TV is shut off the end of this month. Gregory Taylor, a researcher with Ryerson University who has studied the switch to digital, said, ""A major problem with the transition is that we are creating two systems for the over-the-air market in Canada. At a time when the technology allows this incredible leap in quality of over-the-air service, we're actually cutting back on access to this technology across most of this country."

The article said CBC is replacing 27 of its more than 600 analog transmitters with digital transmitters—14 digital transmitters for English programming and 13 for French programming. The result is some viewers, like those in Kitchener, Ontario, won't be able to pick up CBC broadcasts after August 31. Viewers in Quebec City will have to purchase cable or satellite to watch "Hockey Night" in Quebec. CBC will keep analog transmitters running as long in areas where they are allowed, but after they break down viewers will have to switch to cable or satellite for CBC TV.

Taylor comments, "If you get back to the roots of Canadian broadcasting, the spectrum that over-the-air broadcasting uses is public property, it is commonly held public property. Once we move it to a strictly satellite or cable distribution model, it becomes privatized. They are owned by private, for-profit companies. It's a pretty fundamental shift—and it's very tough to get things back into the public realm once they've been privatized."

Taylor told the CRTC, (Canada's equivalent to the FCC), that Canadians aren't ready for the switch. In March, CRTC ordered broadcasters to carry at least six 30-second public service announcements every day about the switch. His reaction to the spots echos those of proponents of over-the-air TV during the U.S. DTV transition: "A few of them, their first point is that in order to not be disadvantaged by the transition, you can subscribe to a digital delivery service — cable or satellite. I don't think they go far enough to let people know that there is good quality over the air — in fact, greatly improved quality over the air in most major urban centres in Canada right now."

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.