Monday, April 30, 2007

Do We Really Need DTV?

I am often asked that question. It usually follows statements and questions like, I like TV the way it is...I don't have any interest in buying a new set...What's wrong with the way things were? The answer to the question is complex and differs depending who you talk to.

Federal Law mandates the transition from analog to digital television. That train has left the station and it will occur on 2/17/2009. On the National Telecommunications And Information Administration (NTIA) website it states the most often quoted response:

"Digital television (DTV) is revolutionizing the television marketplace, offering improved service quality, greater service innovation, and new capabilities not currently available from the analog broadcast television service. DTV will allow broadcasters to offer viewers better image and sound quality and also more programming choices.

There are other benefits to the nation as well. The DTV service is designed to use radio spectrum more efficiently than the current analog service. Therefore, upon completion of the DTV transition, the Federal Government will reclaim and reassign analog broadcast television spectrum to other important uses, including public safety and advanced wireless services."

Now it is true DTV offers snow and ghost free reception and additional services like multicasting, interactivity and HDTV from the same 6Mhz channel as analog TV. With analog TV you get one channel of television, no additional services. In most markets analog stations are spaced out so that there is no co-channel or adjacent channel interference. This is less of a problem with DTV, so the government is reducing the television allocation from channels 2-69 to 2-51. Channels 52-69 will be made available for public safety and advanced wireless services.

Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina the public safety aspect has gained traction. We all have heard of the difficulties emergency services had communicating during these disasters. So spectrum being made available to public safety is a good thing.

But let's face it the "advance wireless services" is all about money. The government plans to auction off an estimated $10 billion worth of spectrum previously used for analog television broadcast signals for commercial and other new radio services.

Now I contend there’s more to the story… In the mid 80’s wireless companies were indeed seeking spectrum held by broadcasters. Broadcasters (as an industry) trying maintain spectrum said they needed the extra-unused channels for advanced services like the Japanese developed analog HDTV. That bothered government officials and members of Congress. Were we going to cede another market to the Japan?

So a competition was launched, whoever created the most innovative and technologically advance television system would win the marketing rights in the U.S. and probably much of the world. It was about nationalism and jobs…politics and money. The end result of the competition was the development of a digital transmission standard, that still allows the government to recoup un-used spectrum and make it available to public safety and other wireless services. It also provided additional services to television like multicasting, interactivity and digital HDTV.

The story of innovation and politics is brilliantly told by the Pulitzer Prize author Joel Brinkley in his book Defining Vision: the Battle for the Future of Television.

One thing the public needs to keep in mind. Just as it is an expense to you all to invest in a new television or settop box…this government mandate has cost broadcasters millions of dollars in investments in new equipment. While DTV offers the potential for new services, few broadcasters have developed one that can recoup the investment in equipment. For the “transition” we are also operating 2 transmitters (analog & digital), so our energy costs are very high. For a small market broadcaster like WWNY…the DTV equipment costs the same as large market broadcasters, but they of course have greater revenue potential.

So often times we in the industry (especially small market stations) also say… do we really need DTV?


Another Good Article on DTV :
Perspective: U.S. is ready to move to digital TV

1 comment:

CarlB said...

A few points those using "public safety" to justify forcing an expensive DTV transition don't seem to mention:
* The only frequencies being held for government or public use are channels 60, 61, 68, 69 - four of the eighteen affected channels. The rest have been auctioned to the highest bidder.
* If the only objective were to "liberate" these four channels, that could've been done just by moving whatever's on them to other existing channels. It's the spectrum auction, not the four public service frequencies, that are driving or forcing this transition.
* While much has been said about 9/11 or Katrina, the problems with maintaining communications during both disasters were caused by key antenna towers being knocked down - one atop the WTC North Tower in NYC, many across New Orleans and Mississippi when Katrina blew through town. With no base station still standing, a lack of open and silent frequencies is not the issue - quite the opposite.

Certainly, it is politically expedient to market DTV with images of two-way radios on fire trucks and then just happen to mention the spectrum auction much later as a seeming afterthought, but that isn't where 14/18ths of the federal priorities are here. This is about dollars... billions of dollars. Holding onto four channels for public services was the seeming afterthought.