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Year In Review: DTV Transition - Analog to End in 2009

The big news in 2005 was agreement in Congress to set a firm date of Feb. 2009 for shutting down analog TV transmission. If this deadline holds, it seems unlikely that stations on, or adjacent to, channels reserved for public safety use will be displaced before analog TV is shut down.

In conversations with engineers at several TV stations, the number of DTV viewers is clearly increasing. However, based on the calls to TV stations, it doesn't appear that non-enthusiasts have started buying equipment to view off-air DTV signals. This is likely to change as more sets with built-in DTV tuners appear on store shelves. A visit before Christmas to a fairly small Wal-Mart store disclosed that many of the sets with screens over 25 inches included DTV tuners and that most larger sets had DTV tuners with CableCARD interfaces.

As less technical viewers turn on their new DTV sets and try off-air reception, stations will have to do a better job in educating viewers on how to receive DTV and to explain concepts like major and minor channels. Non-technical viewers seem to have a lot of confusion about major and minor channel numbers, especially since they notice that they can receive their favorite channel 4 broadcasts with much better quality on channel 4.1 and get continuous weather reports on channel 4.2. However, since the channel 4.1 and 4.2 broadcasts are really on channel 48, they will have to use a UHF antenna for reception instead of their big VHF antenna. Broadcasters have complained that retailers are not pushing off-air TV. While incentives from satellite carriers are certainly a factor in the products that stores push, it's easy to see how fear of questions about how off-air DTV works and concerns that the DTV set purchaser won't have an adequate antenna and will return the set could discourage stores from pushing free off-air TV.

It was reported here last year that the FCC was expected to release a final DTV table of allotments in early 2006. It doesn't look like that prediction will come true, but most stations already have a tentative DTV channel designation and it is likely there will be a final post-transition DTV allocation table before the end of this year. It is possible that a few markets in the heavily contested northeast United States may have unresolved conflicts. However, with Congressional pressure on the FCC to wrap up the transition, it would not be surprising to see a "final" allotment table released, even if a footnote listing the conflicts has to be included.

One issue that isn't really related to RF, but which should be seen as critical to the DTV transition, is multicasting. Just as viewers with big screens are awed by HDTV, viewers with small screens should appreciate improved picture quality of DTV. However, the ability to receive a 24-hour weather channel like NBC's WeatherPlus or ABC stations' Doppler radar, along with news channels and a multitude of offerings on PBS stations could well be the "killer app" for DTV on small screens. For much of the small screen content, stations using up-to-date encoding technology and statistical multiplexing should be able to offer one or more these programs as well as a high quality HDTV channel.

Digital must-carry for both satellite TV and cable, including multicast channels, is important in the growth and acceptance of digital television. However, some thought has to be given to off-air transmission. If some of those innovative multicast programs were only available off-air, might it lead more people to make the effort to get off-air TV? Off-air TV viewership has dropped and if this trend continues, at some point it will be hard for the FCC to justify supplying spectrum for free off-air TV and also for stations to bear the cost of maintaining transmission facilities.

In the second half of 2005, USB DTV receivers for notebook computers began to appear. Some of these were as small as a WiFi adapter and were being introduced for the DVB-T broadcast standard. There is definitely an interest in receiving DTV on notebook computers. While there were fewer announcements of ATSC USB tuners in 2005 than hoped for, manufacturers consulted at the current CES expected to have a wide range of ATSC receiver products, including portable sets and very small USB tuners, available in the first half of this year. In late 2005, DViCO started selling its Fusion HDTV USB ATSC and analog TV receiver with the LG fifth generation VSB decoder. If the products shown at CES are any indication, there should be a flood of inexpensive DTV set-top boxes, portable receivers, displays with ATSC tuners for installation under kitchen cabinets and also USB ATSC tuners for use in notebooks or laptop computers well before the end of 2006.