WASHINGTON How smoothly next February's full-power analog shutdown goes between local broadcasters and the cable and DBS industries which serve as crucial conduits for those broadcast signals may depend on where you live. After all, more than four-out-of-five TV households rely on a pay-TV service for their primary viewing, not on antennas and digital converter boxes.
As the rest of the nation's 210 Designated Market Areas ready themselves to follow in the recent footsteps of the highly publicized, mixed-result "transition" in Wilmington, N.C. (where analog signals at the four participating stations were never really turned off), coordination between local broadcasters and pay-TV services will be at least as important in achieving this mammoth technology shift without chaos as all those "consumer awareness" campaigns that will come before it.
Lynn Claudy UNIQUE CHARACTERISTICS
While lessons have been learned from the Wilmington experiment in September, (which was its primary purpose), there are 133 DMAs larger than Wilmington—and each with its own unique characteristics and challenges. Beyond technical prowess, what will best stitch together all parties for the switch could be, ironically, why broadcasting was invented in the first place.
"Communication; obvious but critical, it's 'communication' that will be key for broadcasters working with cable and DBS," said Lynn Claudy, NAB's longtime senior vice president of science & technology. "It's really as simple—and as complicated—as that. Station engineers need to tell cable headend engineers, as well as their DirecTV and Dish Network contacts, what they're doing with their DTV service—namely when their analog service will end, and identify any upcoming changes to their digital facilities."
Jim Butterworth, DirecTV's senior vice president of engineering & operations, said "broadcasters need to make sure they're transmitting a reliable digital signal at the full power permitted by their license. This ensures we receive a reliable signal at our collection facility in [each] market." And adds Dish Network Programming Director Michael McKenna: "Stations need to create and transmit ATSC broadcast signals over-the-air that sufficiently cover their marketing areas, as well as our local-receive facilities. We'll receive [most of] their signals via over-the-air antennas." McKenna said his satellite firm's actual "collection" of digital signals is not dependent on whether the content is HD or SD (although in order for Dish to deliver broadcast HD to its subscribers, local broadcasters must transmit 1080i or 720p signals).
Cable and DBS engineers, in turn, also need to discuss their specific signal acquisition requirements with local broadcasters well in advance of Feb. 17, Claudy said. Effective communication could prove to be more than a professional courtesy. Some problems do exist, although Butterworth said depending on local circumstances in any given market, his DBS firm thinks some local stations will go from a "bad interference" scenario in the analog do-main to a much improved situation in digital.
"Unfortunately, we also see the opposite case where the analog signal was free of interference and the digital signal is not—due to the fact that most stations change frequencies when they go from analog to digital," he said. And while Butterworth notes that slight interference on a digital signal might not result in any viewable impairment to video imaging, severe interference usually leads to total DTV signal loss.
Butterworth said DirecTV's prep work underway through much of 2008 "primarily means replacing analog reception equipment in our collection facilities around the country with digital receivers. A large number of the markets we carry have already transitioned to digital signals. We plan to have the majority of our local [broadcast] signals converted by the end of this year—well ahead of the actual transition in February." Dish Network's McKenna notes that DBS services, in general, already have been operating as full-digital platforms for years, "so the transition should not have too great an impact on our subscribers."
Time Warner Cable's Alex Dudley agrees. The spokesman said "for us, the transition is quite boring. We've been consistent in our messaging to our customers that they need not do anything. We'll take care of that for them. We're ready for it and a lot of our broadcast partners already are ensuring that we receive their [DTV] signals well. We prefer to receive their signals by fiber," Dudley said.
In fact, fiber will provide a major conduit for getting broadcast DTV signals to homes in a variety of ways. Beyond new fiber TV networks sprouting up around the country (notably Verizon FiOS and AT&T's U-verse IPTV), cablers and telcos are mixing as much fiber into their evolving infrastructures as possible.
"We typically have direct fiber links with [local] broadcaster facilities," said Jay Kreiling, vice president of video services at Comcast, the nation's largest pay-TV provider. "Comcast's objective is to ensure a seamless transition for our customers by virtue of receiving only a digital signal from the broadcaster." Comcast and their cable competitors then will pass on the digital signals to their digital customers, (or convert digital back to analog before feeding it to their diehard analog subscribers).
For satellite services, "We're asking all stations which are on TV-1 delivery right now to keep feeding us a signal through that fiber link until after the transition," said Butterworth. "On a case-by-case basis, DirecTV will assess the post-transition status and decide whether we can use the digital off-air signal [if the signal quality permits] or whether we should switch to alternate fiber delivery means, such as an ASI signal over an SDI-270 circuit."
Since nearly three-quarters of American households rely to some degree on cable, some pay-TV providers (as well as the FCC and local broadcasters) are urging viewers to pay heed to any specific needs today.
"We want to encourage consumers, especially those who still rely [fully] on antenna reception, to act now so they can determine whether they need to take action to make sure they have a smooth transition on February 17," Kreiling said. "There are many tools available, including our [Comcast] Web site, to help consumers figure out what option will work best for them."
One lesson learned in Wilmington is apparently a lot of existing analog antennas nationwide will have to be repositioned or altered, if not replaced entirely, in order to pick up the same broadcast channels after the switch. Ideally, however, said Claudy, going with either cable/satellite or antennas should not be "sold" as a choice to consumers. "It seems to us that cable and satellite subscribers should also connect antennas to most or all of their sets, either directly for new sets or via converter boxes for older sets. That way, if the pay service is interrupted for any reason, local digital broadcast signals will still be available for consumers," he said.
To help organize the chaos, NAB, MSTV, NCTA and other groups have pooled their resources to produce the "Cable and Broadcast Industry Coordination Reference Handbook for the Broadcast DTV Transition," which includes online forms and answers necessary to have a successful DTV transition, according to Claudy. Satellite coordination documents and switch-over schedules also are available at: www.mstv.org/cablesat.php.