Canadian over-the-air TV following U.S. down digital path

The transition to digital television promises free HDTV, better picture and sound, more channels and more efficient use of the public airways. For some Canadians, however — those who live in small towns and who use an antenna TV — the shutdown of analog TV signals in 2011 could mean that they lose some channels altogether.

The transition to digital television promises free HDTV, better picture and sound, more channels and more efficient use of the public airways. For some Canadians, however — those who live in small towns and who use an antenna TV — the shutdown of analog TV signals in 2011 could mean that they lose some channels altogether.

Digital TV basics

Digital TV, or DTV, is a new format for broadcast television that allows high-definition video (HDTV) and surround-sound audio to be sent over the air for free, without cable or satellite service.

DTV is touted as the biggest change in TV since the introduction of colour. However, while black-and-white TVs could receive colour TV signals, DTV is not backwards-compatible; older TVs with analog tuners can't receive DTV signals without some new equipment.

To receive DTV you need an antenna and a digital tuner. Karim Sunderani sells both at his Mississauga, Ont., store Save And Replay, as well as PVRs, amplifiers and other gadgets for over-the-air digital TV. But you might already have everything you need. 

Most new flat-screen TVs have a digital (ATSC) tuner. For older TVs with only an analog (NTSC) tuner, you need an external digital tuner or converter box, which can receive digital TV and show it on an older TV set. However, shows that are in high-definition won't display in HD on older TVs.

Watch for non-digital TVs

In the U.S., all new TVs are required to have a digital TV tuner if they include an analog tuner. No such law exists in Canada, so if you see a flat-screen TV at a deep discount, check to see if it includes a digital (ATSC) tuner.

Some TVs, sometimes called monitors, have no tuner at all and require an external signal source, such as an external tuner or a cable or satellite set-top box.

Any antenna that can receive analog TV signals can receive digital ones, from an old-fashioned rooftop aerial to a modern model. 

"The newer technology is a little bit better, so I suggest getting a newer antenna if you're not successful [with an old one]," says Sunderani. 

Currently, most DTV signals are in the UHF band, so simple "rabbit ears" designed for VHF aren't the best for DTV. That may change, however, when the analog signals in VHF shut down; broadcasters could move some DTV signals to VHF.

The U.S. is shutting down analog TV broadcasts and going all-digital June 12, 2009, and Canada will follow suit on Aug. 21, 2011. American DTV signals are already available to Canadians living close to the border, who can get ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW and other American channels, most of them in HD. 

However, over-the-air DTV doesn't have specialty channels that are exclusive to cable or satellite TV. "It is basic TV," says Sunderani. "You're not getting TSN. You're not getting Home and Garden TV."

When it comes to DTV in Canada, Sunderani says Windsor, Ont., is "the No. 1 hot spot," with up to 45 digital and HD channels. Because of its proximity to Detroit, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, Windsor gets the most American DTV, although none of the Canadian stations there broadcast in digital yet.  

Right now, Canadian broadcasters offer over-the-air digital TV in only a handful of Canadian cities: Quebec City; Montreal; Ottawa; Toronto; Hamilton, Ont.; London, Ont.; Calgary and Vancouver. 

Find DTV signals

The website TV Fool has a TV signal locator that will analyze your location and tell you what TV signals are available, including DTV signals. The site only works for U.S. addresses, so for Canadian locations, use geographic co-ordinates.

The site Batch Geocode can convert Canadian addresses to latitude and longitude co-ordinates.

Toronto leads the way in Canadian DTV. All Toronto-based stations broadcast in digital with the exception of TVOntario; the Ontario public broadcaster is waiting until the August 2011 deadline to switch to digital. Combined with American DTV signals from Buffalo, N.Y., antenna TV viewers in the GTA can get up to 25 digital channels, most of them in HD. 

But Sunderani tells his customers to aim low. "We always sell them the pessimistic approach," he says. "We tell people 'If you get 18 channels, be happy.'" 

As for the rest of Canada, "B.C. is doing pretty well. Montreal's doing pretty well. The worst spot seems to be the East Coast. Those poor guys only pick up one or two stations," says Sunderani. 

Digital difference

Digital TV signals don't become snowy, ghosted or hissy when there's interference the way analog signals do. For the most part, you either receive the signal perfectly, or not at all. When there is interference in a digital TV signal, the audio cuts out and the video pauses, becomes pixelated or goes black until the signal is re-established.

Not all digital TV is high-definition TV, and there can be some confusion over the terms DTV and HDTV. If you want HDTV, you need some kind of digital service, either over-the-air DTV, or digital cable or satellite service. But not everything on digital will be high-definition; reruns of All in the Family will never look as crisp as episodes of Two and a Half Men in HD.

Virtual channels

Many DTV stations broadcast on one channel, but appear on a different one on your TV. These virtual channels are sometimes used for branding purposes, to match a station's DTV channel to its analog TV channel.

For example, CBC in Toronto broadcasts on DTV channel 20.1 (or 20-1 on some TVs), but appears on channel 5.1 to coincide with the station's spot on the analog TV dial since 1972.

Some U.S. channels broadcast a secondary channel or sub-channel. For example, in Buffalo, N.Y., the NBC station broadcasts a sub-channel specializing in local weather, and the PBS station has a sub-channel for educational programming, called ThinkBright.

DTV can broadcast high-def video and multiple sub-channels over the air, because the digital signal is compressed, using some of the same technology used in video on computers, including MPEG video encoding.

DTV overall uses less bandwidth than analog TV, so regulators in U.S. and Canada are reallocating some of that bandwidth — known as the 700 MHz spectrum, currently occupied by UHF TV channels 52 through 69 — for other purposes. Suggested uses for this newly available bandwidth include emergency public safety services and advanced wireless internet — what internet columnist and law professor Michael Geist calls "Wi-Fi on steroids."

Government and broadcasters clash over DTV

The Government of Canada will make a lot of money from the conversion, when it auctions off rights to use the reallocated 700 MHz spectrum. When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission held its auction of the 700 MHz spectrum in early 2008, it got bids totaling about $19 billion US.

Industry Canada got bids totaling $4.3 billion from an auction of the 2 GHz spectrum in July 2008. CTVglobemedia's 2009 broadcast licence renewal application estimates that Industry Canada would make more than $4 billion from the 700 MHz spectrum auction.

The conversion will cost of lot of money, too, of course. In its renewal application, CTVglobemedia estimated its own costs for the analog to digital conversion, including changing transmitters and studio equipment, would be $437 million. CBC/Radio-Canada estimates its costs for digital conversion of transmitters alone would be $400 million.

That cost is where some of the problem lies for broadcasters.

The CRTC found in 2006 that more than 90 per cent of Canadians subscribe to cable TV or satellite service. By that measure, the planned shutdown of the analog TV signal in favour of digital affects less than a tenth of Canadians. David Purdy, vice-president of video product management for Rogers Communications, told the Toronto Star in May 2009 that the number is now closer to six per cent.

Antenna TV shutdown

CTVglobemedia has not applied to the CRTC to renew its broadcast licences for transmitters in these locations:

  • Upsalquitch Lake, N.B.
  • Campbellton, N.B.
  • St. Edward, P.E.I.
  • Bridgetown, N.S.
  • New Glasgow, N.S.
  • Deseronto, Ont.
  • Lancaster, Ont.
  • Pembroke, Ont.
  • Severn Falls, Ont.
  • Bobcaygeon, Ont.
  • Elliot Lake, Ont.
  • Kapuskasing, Ont.
  • Kearns, Ont.
  • Hearst/Hallebourg, Ont.
  • Chapleau, Ont.
  • Wawa, Ont.
  • Dwight, Ont.
  • Wiarton, Ont.
  • Parry Sound, Ont.
  • Wingham, Ont.
  • Windsor, Ont.
  • Foxwarren, Man.
  • Melita, Man.
  • McCreary, Man.
  • The Pas, Man.
  • Flin Flon, Man.
  • Snow Lake, Man.
  • Thompson, Man.
  • Big River, Sask.
  • Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask.
  • Hudson Bay, Sask.
  • Humboldt, Sask.
  • Burmis, Alta.
  • Drumheller, Alta.
  • Bassano, Alta.
  • Moyie, Alta.
  • Pigeon Mountain, Alta.
  • Oyen, Alta.
  • Waterton Park, Alta.
  • Coleman, Alta.
  • Lougheed, Alta.
  • Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
  • Athabasca, Alta.
  • Sparwood, B.C.
  • Invermere, B.C.

CTVglobemedia argues that the analog switch-off is forcing them to spend millions of dollars for the benefit of a tiny fraction of its audience. In the company's most recent application to the CRTC to renew its broadcast licence, CTVglobemedia president and CEO Ivan Fecan said:

"We cannot justify an investment of several hundred million dollars to reach nine per cent of the marketplace, particularly when this investment produces no additional revenue in a business that is already teetering on the edge."

Included in the company's application was a list of 45 TV transmitters whose licences CTV would not renew, transmitters it uses to rebroadcast local TV signals from larger markets. In its application, CTV said:

"Given cable and [direct-to home satellite TV] penetration, very few people actually watch these stations off-air."

CTV told a Heritage Canada committee in April 2009 that the analog shutdown is "a product of a bilateral Canada/U.S. agreement that will see the government of Canada generate more than $4 billion," and that it "was not driven by consumers or the industry." 

The CRTC says the shut-off date is necessary so that broadcasters can plan and innovate for the future, but that wasn't always the commission's position. The CRTC's first recommendation, from 2002, on transitioning from analog to digital broadcasting was to let the market decide, and to allow broadcasters to transition to digital over a period of years, starting with big cities and moving to smaller markets over several years.

By 2007, however, the CRTC found that Canada was lagging behind the U.S. in digital and high-definition broadcasts. Canadian consumers who had bought HDTVs were finding little Canadian content on HD cable and satellite offerings.

The CRTC said that if Canada didn't follow suit and force a switch to digital, a situation mirroring the 1950s and 1960s could arise, when the first nationwide colour broadcast in the U.S. preceded the first one in Canada by 12 years. In that time, Canadians became hooked on colour programming emanating from the United States and shunned locally produced TV, which was in black and white.

Industry Canada also pointed out that without a deadline for shutting down analog TV signals, the government wouldn't effectively be able to reuse and auction off the part of the broadcast spectrum currently set aside for high-frequency UHF TV.