DTV transition goal: no viewer should be left behind, Donovan says

Regardless of the amount of work left to do, broadcasters must get it done before Feb. 17, 2009, so no over-the-air viewer with a DTV or converter box is left behind, said Association for Maximum Service Television president David Donovan.
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MSTV president David Donovan says much of the flexibility given broadcasters in the new DTV R&O depends on commission waivers, which raises the question of whether the FCC can move quickly enough to have a positive impact on the transition.

The clock continues to tick until zero hour, Feb. 17, 2009, when broadcasters must cease their over-the-air analog service and flip on full power DTV service.

With about 667 days to go before the transition to digital television broadcasting is complete, David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television has a simple message: Get busy, Feb. 17, 2009, will be here before you know it.

Last month, Donovan hosted a webcast to bring into context the size of the task facing broadcasters and what must be done so no over-the-air TV viewer gets left behind.

HD Technology Update: You recently hosted a webcast to discuss issues that must be addressed before the DTV transition can be completed successfully. Could you please discuss how important coordinating the timing of analog shutoff and commencement of full power DTV transmission is to preventing interference? Please give examples.

David Donovan: I believe coordination will be critical to completing a smooth DTV transition. First, with approximately 600 stations moving channels, it will be important for stations to talk with each other. In many instances, a station will not be able to commence digital operations on its final channel until another station in the market moves. Those stations must have a conversation.

Second, we must coordinate with both satellite and cable systems. For example, will the cable headends install the necessary equipment to receive your signal on its new, final DTV channel? The last thing we want is to have to wait weeks or months while new equipment is ordered for a cable headend or satellite uplink. Stations need to engage in discussions.

Finally, it will be helpful for stations in the same market to coordinate scheduling. For example, if several stations are using the same tower company, it may make sense for them to get together to have the tower company do the work for the entire market at the same time.

HDTU: Would it be ideal if every full powered station switched off their analog operations at the same time and came back up on their digital channels simultaneously? Why?

DD: In a perfect world, this will happen on Feb. 17, 2009, at 11:59 p.m. If everyone moved, then there would be no interference issues, consumers would have new DTV sets and digital-to-analog converter boxes, and consumers would be ready. From a technical standpoint, there is one problem with some stations moving to their final DTV channel early. Such moves may cause interference to surrounding stations that have not moved to their final DTV channel. There is a domino effect that must be considered.

HDTU: You conducted an informal survey of MSTV members and engineers and extrapolated from your findings the number of antennas, transmitters, transmission line, tower rigging projects, etc., that must be completed between now and February 2009. Could you describe those findings and comment in general on the scope of the work that remains before the transition can occur?

DD: This was a very informal survey that was designed to give us some idea as to what needs to be done between now and the end of the DTV transition. We noted that 65 percent of stations plan to remain on their current DTV channels. Nearly 35 percent of the industry — approximately 600 stations — will be moving their DTV facilities to a new channel on Feb. 17, 2009. Such moves will require coordination among stations. Such moves, however, often require additional equipment, such as a new transmitter or antenna. Looking at the overall numbers, it appears that a significant number of television stations plan to modify their DTV facilities before February 2009.

Again, the equipment demand part of the survey was merely an extrapolation. It was by no means a scientific survey of the industry. Nonetheless, it highlighted the need for all TV stations to shift into high gear. Because of interference issues, it is possible that a relatively small number of stations could create interference problems even though 99.9 percent of the industry has worked hard to meet the deadline. We want to make sure there are no problems and that the transition is seamless.

HDTU: You also matched up that estimated RF equipment and services demand with known RF supply capability. How does supply and demand match up?

DD: Once again, this is merely an extrapolation, not a scientific survey. It is no secret, however, that there are a handful of companies that can do broadcast towers, especially tall towers. The same is true for transmitter and antenna suppliers. When you look at the potential demand and supply picture, one thing becomes clear: Do not wait until 2008 to order equipment or arrange for tower work.

HDTU: Could you describe the MSTV DTV Rubber Meets the Road tour you’ve kicked off? What’s the goal of the tour?

DD: Working with the state associations, the goal is to reach out to all TV stations across the country, both commercial and non-commercial. There are a number of stations that do not get to Washington or the NAB convention. Our goal is to make sure they are informed about the technical side of the transition and what needs to be done to meet the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline. Also, it gives stations, especially engineers, the opportunity to begin the coordination process. This is especially important where stations will be changing channels. Finally, we are advising stations to coordinate with cable and satellite systems. We want to make sure these systems are ready when we make the change.

HDTU: Based on what you see, do you think the industry will be ready to make the analog switchoff in February 2009? Do you think viewers — especially OTA-only viewers — will be ready?

DD: There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, but, yes, we will be ready for the transition. The recent DTV hearings before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee made it very clear. The Feb. 17, 2009, date is not going to slip. Even though it will occur during a sweeps period, broadcasters must be ready to switch on that date. We will do everything in our power to meet this deadline. I would note, however, that the success of the transition depends in part on several issues, which are beyond our control.

First, cable systems, satellite operators and SMATV systems must also be ready to make the transition. These systems must be ready to carry the digital signal, and where appropriate, retransmit the signal to their analog customers that still have analog television sets. At the same time, the digital signals should also be carried on the digital tier as well. Finally, it would be highly inappropriate for cable to unilaterally downconvert our HDTV signals to SDTV. Such a policy that was proposed in legislation last year would undermine consumer acceptance of the transition.

Second, the NAB has committed to conducting an extensive public campaign to inform consumers about the digital transition. Working cooperatively with other industries, our goal is simple: no viewer should be left behind. We take this responsibility very seriously. Indeed, it’s in our own economic best interest to make sure consumers are ready. We do not want to lose viewers.

Finally, and this is extremely important, the government should not enact policies that will increase interference in the television band. We all know that the digital signal is terrific. Unlike analog, which degrades gracefully, digital signals are all or nothing. Interference causes a digital signal to become pixilated, freeze and the sound goes off.

I can think of nothing that would undermine the DTV transition more than to introduce millions of unlicensed, interfering devices into the final DTV band (channel 2-51) right at the time when you are trying to convince consumers to shift from analog to digital. Consumers will have no idea that their set is not working because someone is using an unlicensed device in the next apartment or down the street. A consumer’s first instinct will be to take the TV set, or the government subsidized converter box, back to the store. All the PSAs and public relations in the world cannot make up for sets that do not work properly due to interference from allowing unlicensed devices, especially personal and portable unlicensed devices, in the TV band.

I can spend hours going through all the studies we submitted into the record at the FCC. Suffice to say, that such devices will cause interference to television reception. In fact, the FCC just released its analysis of TV set reception. It demonstrates there is a problem if these devices operate on the first and other adjacent channels. The only response we hear from the proponents is that “our device will not cause interference.” Of course, we expect the FCC to test the device, but at this point, all the FCC has is a self-described development platform and not a device per se. Even if a purported device does surface, however, the sensing levels that are not proposed will not protect TV sets from on-channel interference.

Those of us who are committed to the DTV transition must watch this issue carefully. The government should not be working at cross-purposes.

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