DTV Transition Just the First Stage

One network's 14-year journey to convert to digital
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JOHNSTON, IOWA
When I came to work at Iowa Public Television in May 1999, I inherited a four-year plan to convert the studios and the eight full-powered transmitters to digital. As time rolled by, I used to joke that I was seven or eight or nine years into a four-year plan. On August 23, 2010, the four-year plan finally was completed when our digital translator in Decorah, Iowa was placed on the air and all of our services became available to all of our viewers.

I don't look back on any of this as bad planning because at the time the plan was created, much of what we were planning for hadn't been invented. As a matter of fact, one of the primary drivers for IPTV to create and continue the Iowa DTV Symposium for 14 years was the recognition that we didn't know what we didn't know and we weren't alone. So some delays were the results of slow product development and ideas that didn't pan out.

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New digital transmitters en route to their final destinations in Decorah and Lansing, Iowa. Some delays were caused by the unforeseen, such as two unprecedented economic downturns. The first downturn early in the plan slowed progress but provided time for the inventions to be refined. It also gave us time to revise and refine our goals and become one of the leading stations in the adoption of high definition throughout our facility. The second economic downturn or the "great recession" as we now refer to it, towards the end of the plan has slowed the finish work. You know, the things we'll go back to complete once we get all of the big item finished?

UNFORESEEN WINDFALL

Among the "finish work" for IPTV was the conversion of our eight translators from analog to digital. Our translators were a concern even at the beginning of the plan. All eight of them had been displaced by DTV full-power stations and when I arrived at the station, seven of them had construction permits to be moved to non-core television channels and one had no construction permit at all because no channel could be found. I was not particularly pleased with the prospect of building seven out-of-core channels that I knew would have to be rebuilt with in-core channels at some point in the not-too-distant future. I was most concerned with the one translator that didn't have an assignment as it serviced Ottumwa, Iowa which has a fairly large population and supports IPTV. In case you're curious, the residence of fictional character Walter "Radar" O'Reilly did not factor into our concern.

When I hired consultant Greg Best to look into the situation at Ottumwa, the situation was bleak. The local ABC affiliate in the area which had been assigned our analog translator channel had fired up at low power and our signal was unwatchable. I asked Greg to see if he could find us a channel that was in-core and if possible, one we could eventually flash cut to digital on at some point in the future. I was pleasantly surprised when after a very brief analysis, Greg reported back to me that he had found a channel and then further stunned me by asking how much ERP I wanted as he believed we could do slight north of 100 kilowatts on the channel he had located. Suddenly I was not just looking at restoring service to Ottumwa but now providing service to a larger audience.

This unforeseen windfall caused me to reconsider our other seven translators that had out-of-core construction permits at the same low-power levels as their displaced channels. Could the same thing be done for them so that IPTV could improve and grow service to the audiences in the most remote sections of Iowa while simultaneously providing an inexpensive path to digital conversion? We contracted with Greg to look at the other translators to see what could be done. Not only were we able to accomplish the same thing at the other seven sites as far as power was concerned, but at three of the sites we were able to stay on our current analog channels by employing directional antennas.

We proceeded to contract for translators for analog operation at the new increased power level with all of the components and services necessary to convert them to digital operation in the field. We contracted for new antennas on the new channels and began the process of systematically retooling the plants. Top priority was given to our Ottumwa facility which is located in the southeast corner of the state, which was completed and went operational as an analog facility in October 2006 and was converted to digital in December 2009.

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

IPTV's translators are located in three of the four corners of the state. Four are located in the southeast corner, two in the northeast corner and two in the northwest corner. Since work had been started at the Ottumwa site, located in the southeast corner, we decided to focus on completing the retooling there and then tackle the northeast and then northwest corners. Equipment had been ordered, antennas where in fabrication, tower work was scheduled and we were making good progress when the FCC announced the maximization plan and several of our translators had to have new channel assignments as maximized full-power DTV stations precluded our use of the assigned analog channels for digital operations. Fortunately we were able to minimize the financial impact of the required changes, but it presented delays in delivery of hardware which when coupled with Iowa winters and the now firm analog shutoff date taking all of the available tower crews out of the mix, the projects slowed again.

So after more than a decade of planning, implementing, delays, revisions, and a myriad of other bumps and hiccups, the last of the IPTV transmission facilities in Decorah, Iowa has converted to digital. Iowa Public Television is once again providing all of its services to virtually all Iowans at no charge. Although there is a great deal of satisfaction within IPTV's engineering department and the station as a whole that we have finally completed the conversion, we keep our eyes focused on the horizon. We are already investigating the upgrades necessary to do Mobile DTV and are watching the storm clouds brewing under the banner of the National Broadband Plan. We're closely watching the developments with ATSC 2.0. There will also be ongoing changes as the ATSC planning team 3 looks into integrating services with Web-enabled television. Planning team 1 looks into the potential for delivering terrestrial 3D services. And just over the horizon, planning team 2 is considering the replacement for the existing DTV standard that at the station may result in beginning the process all over again.

So in fact, what we have completed at Iowa Public television is phase one in an evolutionary process that in all likelihood has no end date. So for those of you who thought that converting to digital was the destination, it was just a milestone or a mile marker on the highway. Enjoy the journey because the destination is over the horizon, obscured by clouds and possibly on the dark side of the moon. And if I can quote Roger Waters, "there is no dark side of the moon really, it's all dark."

Bill Hayes is the director of engineering for Iowa Public Television. You can reach him via TV Technology.