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TV engineer challenges McCain’s assumptions

Sometimes the politicians in Washington need a reality check when it comes to the transition to digital television. Mark Schubin, an Emmy-Award-winning Fellow of SMPTE (and a well-known TV trade journalist), is challenging Senator John McCain’s call for speeding the DTV transition. Schubin said that the Hurricane Katrina disaster clearly illustrates that shutting down analog TV broadcasting will endanger lives rather than protect them.

Schubin cites a survey published in the New York Times in August, which indicates that five of eight Americans prefer to get their local news from TV, a proportion that has actually increased since 2001. Current penetration of digital-TV receivers or adapters is low, and the lowest-priced advertised adapter costs $200; 13in color TVs are regularly advertised at prices below $50 and battery-powered 5in black-and-white TVs sell for less than $20. There are no battery-powered digital televisions.

Receivers said to be able to be sold for $50 were recently demonstrated to Congress, but Schubin notes that their antennas were in a window. He said that several receivers tested at his Manhattan apartment got good reception with a window antenna, but they couldn't get reception even a few feet inside the room. He added that the rabbit ears on his TV pick up analog signals there just fine.

Schubin said he also challenges assumptions that a lack of spectrum had anything to do with the Katrina or 9/11 disasters. After Katrina, Schubin said, there were downed and damaged towers and antennas, equipment was underwater, signal cables were severed and power was out. That would knock out communications no matter how many channels were available.

As for the World Trade Center, the 9/11 Commission Report notes that the Port Authority Police had more channels than they used and that the biggest problems were caused by a fire-department repeater that wasn't properly activated, not by any lack of spectrum, Schubin said.

Senator McCain is calling for analog-TV transmissions to be shut down by 2007. Schubin points out that roughly 30 million TV sets of all types were sold to U.S. dealers in 2004. Even if all of those were to be digital, it would take a minimum of four years before every household in America had a digital TV. That would put it at 2010. “How are people supposed to get evacuation orders before then?” Schubin asked.

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