Satcasters Voice DTV Transition Concerns

The nation’s largest satellite companies have told the FCC that they might not be able to deliver all broadcasters’ digital signals on the morning of Feb. 18, 2009, after the analog shutoff.
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FALLS CHURCH, VA.
The nation’s largest satellite companies have told the FCC that they might not be able to deliver all broadcasters’ digital signals on the morning of Feb. 18, 2009, after the analog shutoff.

EchoStar, distributor to some 13.6 million customers via its Dish Network, told the commission that even if all terrestrial broadcasters are digital by the cutover date, their programming lineup might not be available to home satellite viewers at that time.

“It is critical to understand that EchoStar will not physically be able to transition all broadcasters from analog to digital at midnight on February 17, 2009,” the company told the FCC in Reply Comments filed August 30. “Given the magnitude of the switchover on the DBS infrastructure, even conducting the transition over a matter of months would be a substantial hurdle.”

DirecTV also filed its Reply Comment to the FCC on August 30. The company cited its own “period of adjustment” set of problems and requested a “reasonable window after the transition date” in which to complete the satellite distribution element of the transition.

The problems for both DBS providers lie in the methodology for getting local broadcaster’s signals to the 22,300-mile high birds.

Somewhere within viewing distances of stations in a given market, DBS providers have set up off-air demods for taking in the terrestrial signals. While some of these head-ends are equipped and functioning with 8-VSB demods, the majority are not. EchoStar’s Dish Network retransmits more than 1,500 terrestrial signals in 175 U.S. markets, with the majority of the video coming from analog feeds. DirecTV carries signals from more than 1,200 television stations.

NOT DONE OVERNIGHT

EchoStar says that their company has 14 fulltime engineers to handle the equipment changes and that it takes six to accomplish each conversion. The company cited experience gained with the digital transition at Wilmington, N.C. where the makeover required eight months to plan, implement and launch.

EchoStar fears that some terrestrial broadcasters may hold out until the last minute to make their own digital switch. The company says that if this happens, it will be physically impossible to align antennas, reroute demodulator signals and handle other tasks associated with doing signal swaps for retransmission.

Barring this eventuality, EchoStar feels that the challenge can be met.

“EchoStar does not anticipate any difficulty in meeting the February 2009 digital transition date, provided that local broadcasters do not wait until the last minute to switch to a digital signal,” said Francie Bauer, a spokesperson for the company. “We are hopeful that the FCC will grant the cable industry’s request to require local stations to reveal their digital plans by December 2007, or allow satellite providers more time to convert to digital of some stations wait until the last minute to make the transition.”

POTENTIAL DIFFICULTIES

DirecTV has stated too that it has confidence that most stations can be migrated before February of 2009, but wants some breathing room, just in case. The stumbling blocks identified lie in the following areas:

  • Stations that have yet to construct a post-transition digital transmission facility;
  • Stations that do have an operational post-transition facility, but are unable to deliver a sufficiently good signal to headend locations (usually due to interim operations with less than full authorized power);
  • Stations now operating digitally on an post-transition interim channel (out of core operations), or those that have elected to fall back to their old analog frequency after Feb. 17, 2009;
  • Stations that are staying analog up to the end and plan to “flashcut” to digital around the deadline.

The company indicated that any of these situations could make it difficult or impossible to be fully operational for retransmission of broadcasters’ DTV signals before analog shutoff.

Robert Mercer, DirecTV spokesperson, is confident that his company will get the conversion accomplished under the wire.

“We’ll certainly be ready by the time the transition takes place and, in fact, we’re already utilizing digital in a number of markets,” Mercer said. “And the other thing to keep in mind is that we have plans to carry over 70 markets in HD by year end and a lot more next year, so we’ll have digital demods in place for the channels that cover the overwhelming majority of the U.S. So the bottom line is that we will be prepared for the analog shutoff in 2009.”

DirecTV launched a new satellite—DirecTV-10—in July which is expected to increase the company’s capacity for the desired HD channel carriage. According to Mercer, the launch of an additional satellite early in 2008 will further bolster his company’s channel carriage capability.”

“This will get us to 150 channels of national high definition signals and also provide capacity for 1,500 local HD channels,” Mercer said.

BROADCASTERS’ PERSPECTIVES

Broadcasters have a slightly different view of the problem.

Joey Gill, chief engineer at WPSD-TV in Paducah, Ky. says that even though his station has had a digital signal on the air for some time, EchoStar is not carrying it. He was told by that company that the digital signal could not be accommodated because of aspect ratio problems. However, Gill says that all of his transmissions are 1080i and widescreen. And this “aspect ratio difficulty” has never been fully explained by EchoStar.

“It doesn’t change,” he said. “It always stays 16:9. We’re probably on 25 cable headends around here and they’re all using receivers with an NTSC output and they crop off the letterboxes and they have no problems.”

Pat Victoria, chief engineer at WSIL-TV in Harrisburg, Ill., acknowledges that his station’s digital signal is being carried on satellite, but says he had to purchase the 8-VSB demodulator and put up a special signal to make it happen.

“After they [satellite re-transmitters] moved their receive location, we had a complaint from one of the DBS providers that our analog signal was bad,” said Victoria. “We had to buy a digital tuner to provide a 4:3 [aspect ratio] signal for these services. People have commented on how nice and clean it is.”

WSIL-TV’s digital feed to both DBS providers and cable headends is a bit unusual in that it’s taken from one of the ancillary digital “channels” being transmitted. Victoria explained that this was necessary as the satellite carrier didn’t want to use WSIL-TV’s 16:9 aspect ratio feed.

“We use our second tier channel for this,” said Victoria. “And we feed it from a converted signal going to our analog transmitter. We’ll keep this going until we finally shut down analog operations in 2009.”

PBS is also working with the the satellite carriers to ensure that carriage of that network’s programming continues into the post-2009 digital era without hitches.

“As part of our on-going relationship with DBS providers, PBS has begun talking with EchoStar and DirecTV about what we can do to make the February 2009 transition go a smoothly as possible for DBS providers—and ultimately viewers,” said Ann Tucker, director of technology strategy at PBS.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

In an effort to ensure a timely conversion to digital, both DirecTV and EchoStar have requested FCC assistance. DirecTV is asking the commission to adopt the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s proposal for each television station to “publicly declare” its transition plans by Dec. 1, 2007 and also to “issue a reasonable schedule under which satellite operators can switch out equipment for these stations.”

EchoStar reaffirmed the NCTA proposal for a declaration of DTV broadcasting plans and has also volunteered to host a summit at the operation’s Englewood, Colo. headquarters early in 2008 “to address concerns and challenges both pre- and post-transition.”