Monday, February 02, 2009

700 MHz Groundhogs Look For DTV Shadow

Groundhog's Day is the traditional time for reading the shadows of things to come. This year is no different, as a shivering continent holds its icy breath in anticipation of a warm weather bailout courtesy of Punxsutawney Phil. But there's another shadow on the horizon being eagerly watched by the telecom industry. That's the looming decision on user rights to the 700 MHz UHF TV band. If it goes one way, DTV or digital television will soon be here. If it goes the other, we'll have another 16 weeks of ATV or analog television.

"Who cares," you say? Lots of people care about this decision. Probably a lot more than really think that dragging a groggy rodent out of bed is actually going to stop their teeth from chattering. On the one side are those who's TV sets are going to become nothing more than hiss generators when the analog television transmitters are shut down for good. On the other side are the new owners of those TV frequencies who bought and paid for the right to re-purpose them in a recent government auction. Somewhere in the middle are the television stations themselves who resent having to pay the electric bill for both an analog and a digital TV transmitter, but have taken their time upgrading to HDTV local programming.

What's behind this conundrum is an unprecedented massive repurposing of the broadcast spectrum. Analog TV, which was first demonstrated during the Hoover administration and rapidly deployed after the Second World War, is being frog-marched off its traditional VHF and UHF channels in favor of digital TV and other applications such as cell phones and wireless broadband Internet service.

What's so unprecedented about this is that technology improvements have always had to work with existing communications services on the public airwaves, not evict them. AM radio started up in 1920 and is still with us. The band has been expanded and stereo was introduced. There's even digital radio called HD radio. But your old crystal set will still pick up the first U.S. broadcaster, KDKA, at 1020 on the dial near Pittsburgh and farther away after dark. When FM came along, new radios had to pick up both AM and FM channels. Most still do. When the VHF TV channels filled up, new TV sets had to receive both VHF and UHF. They still do. Color came to television only after some clever engineers figured out how to squeeze in the color signal so that B&W receivers ignored it and color sets automatically displayed full color pictures. They still do.

This time it's different. Only a couple of years have elapsed since TV receivers were mandated to pick up both analog and digital signals. That would be well and good if the analog channels were going to keep broadcasting. Then it wouldn't matter that your old TV set lived forever. You'd still be able to watch your programs and could upgrade with a converter or new HDTV set when you felt like it and had the money available. But pulling the rug out on analog TV owners by pulling the plug on their analog signals forces people to either toss out perfectly good television sets, buy a converter set for each, or add to their collection with new digital TVs.

The government meant to ease the pain by providing coupons in the form of single use "gift" cards to offset the cost of buying converters. But underfunding and slow response by consumers in understanding that "the end is near" means that today there are several million people on a waiting list for the coupons that may never come. You have six TVs scattered around your house because television sets are relatively cheap? Too bad. You only get coupons to upgrade two of them, if coupons ever become available again.

The other problem is that digital TV reception is more finicky than analog. Analog can be weak, but watchable, and you can tinker with your antenna to get the best reception. Digital is either there or not. If your antenna isn't set just right, you'll be climbing on the snowy roof in freezing February to make adjustments. Who's bright idea was it to do this transition in the middle of winter?

Delaying the demise of analog TV until June 12 coupled with sending out millions more converter coupons seems like a good way to create a second chance to do it right the first time. Consumers get a "last call" to buy converters, upgrade to HDTV sets, or order alternative delivery services such as satellite or cable. Dish Network or DirecTV installers will be able to put a dish on your roof without risking an icy fall. Cable TV installers will be able to trench cable in the unfrozen soil of your back yard. You can tweak your antenna or have a new one (with a rotor) installed in the warmth of the spring sun.

So who's opposed to this seemingly sensible digital TV delay? Qualcomm, for one, is hopping mad that they won UHF channel 55 in the auction and have installed 100 new transmitters around the country to provide 15 channels of their MediaFLO mobile video programming to wireless subscribers. Not being able to flip the switches of those transmitters to ON until summer means no way to add paying subscribers, and that's an immediate loss of planned revenue.

AT&T and Verizon also have digital dogs in this fight. Theirs are called LTE or Long Term Evolution, a cellular broadband standard that can bring 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps Internet connections to smartphones, laptop computers and even residential and small office desktops. But this technology is, indeed, something of a long term evolution from the HSUPA and EVDO broadband networks they have deployed to date for cellphones and aircards. Both carriers have said that a short delay won't significantly impact their buildout plans that were planned for later this year and beyond.

TV broadcasters would like to stop feeding gross numbers of kilowatts to their aging analog transmitters to reduce their power bills. That's understandable. Some stations are also caught in a TV channel version of musical chairs. They've got low power digital transmitters propped up to get in the digital game on a borrowed channel. But they can't get their full power digital transmitters on the air until the analog transmitter vacates their permanent channel. Stations that took the option of switching channels for digital service don't have that particular problem.

There are also the slippery-slopers who fear that once you delay a schedule you may never make the change at all. The transition date will just slip away 3 months at a time. Well, you can't say it absolutely won't happen. But once the majority of consumers are satisfied, it seems likely the government will exercise its eminent domain powers to get the switch over and done with.

At this writing, the weather prognosticating groundhogs are prepping for their big announcements on the arrival of Spring. Our Congressional leaders are prepping for another vote on the DTV transition delay and will have their own announcement, likely this week. No matter how any of these predictions come out, chances are that someone's going to be getting a cold shoulder long before the tulips bloom.

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