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Is 2003 the year of DTV critical mass?

Some facilities build new tower facilities with greater load capacity, such as the Candelabra shown here under construction, or as is often the case, existing facilities are modified to handle the increased DTV load.

As 2003 begins, the number of DTV stations on-the-air approaches 700. One hundred and seventy-four markets now have at least one DTV on. Those 174 markets serve 95.14 percent of U.S. TV households. The NAB reports that 67.51 percent of the more than 106 million U.S. TV households are in markets with five or more DTV broadcasters and 35.6 percent have access to eight or more DTVs.

The networks are now serious about using DTV for HD. ABC has 11 720p; CBS has 16 1080i; and NBC has 12 1080i HD programs on-the-air today. The networks have recently told their remote production vendors to gear up for HD location production, featuring mainly sports broadcasts. Besides the half dozen HD trucks plying the interstates today, the two largest truck vendors have placed orders for at least 60 additional HD cameras to equip additional HD trucks.

HD might be driving DTV set sales. Last year saw a 56 percent increase in units shipped verses the year before and more than 300,000 DTV receivers were sold last year.

The FCC eased the DTV transition process last year by allowing stations to take a slower approach to their DTV transition than the original mandate, which was to get to full-power quickly in order to receive interference protection in their assigned coverage area. Equipment manufacturers responded to this slower approach and most transmitter vendors now offer systems that allow the broadcaster to start their DTV transmissions modestly and grow in power as the business warrants.

The down side is that while the total DTVs on-the-air has broken the 50 percent mark, almost 600 stations that should be on-the-air by now aren’t. The FCC has granted the stations not on-the-air yet with a second six month extension. The FCC said it would take severe steps against stations that haven’t signed on digitally, and don’t have compelling excuses by May 2003. The FCC, while quiet recently about what steps it might take with stragglers, will most likely re-visit the issue in the next few weeks.

Also on the agenda this year for Congress is a bill before the House Energy and Commerce committee to require broadcasters to give back analog NTSC bandwidth at the end of 2006, regardless of DTV set penetration.

DTV installs over mean increased backup power and the associated increased fuel storage requirements.

While DTV set manufacturers appear willing to provide “cable ready” sets, they are less reluctant to include terrestrial tuners. This issue has pitted the NAB, which naturally favors ATSC terrestrial tuners against the Consumer Electronics Association, which sees that inclusion as a “tuner tax.” The other major terrestrial/cable issue is must-carry. A recent report by the General Accounting Office suggested that the FCC mandate a switch from NTSC must-carry to ATSC must-carry at some point in the future.

Players in two large markets are probably aware that they will not see a complete DTV build out this year. A new New York City DTV site ran against new turbulence at the end of last year when New Jersey state environmental commissioner Bradley M. Campbell sent a letter to the Metropolitan Television Alliance (MTVA) asking them to prove that a proposed tower would benefit New Jersey residents. The MTVA is a group formed by NYC broadcasters to search for a replacement site for the World Trade Center. The stations are now transmitting from the Armstrong tower in Alpine, N.J. and the Empire State Building. The owners of the Empire State Building have proposed that through efficient antenna and RF plumbing design, along with an increase in electrical service of nearly 3.5 MW, that the landmark could accommodate all the NYC TVs. The MTVA has expressed doubts about the landmark’s ability to serve as a permanent replacement site.

In Denver, Colo., residents in the vicinity of the proposed DTV site have been successful to date in stalling most of Denver’s DTVs from signing on. In what appeared to be a concern at first about the additional RF the new DTVs would add to the area, now has morphed into a campaign by the local residents to remove all existing RF facilities from the site that sits on a front-range ridge just west of Denver.

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