Digital divide: DTV switch leaving some in dark

Broadcasters and regulators have not done enough to inform Canadians about the impending switch to digital TV, which takes effect Aug. 31, and have downplayed the improvements in over-the-air service that digital enables, say some experts.

Bumps on Canada's road to digital television

For Toronto resident John Opala, it wasn't just a desire to save money that drove him to build a rooftop antenna to pull in all those free, over-the-air, high definition channels that the new digital technology has made possible.

John Opala with the rooftop antenna he built to receive free, over-the-air, high definition television broadcasts. (Courtesy Opala family)

He wasn't even thinking about the mandatory switch to digital transmitters that the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has ordered in major markets across the country as of Aug. 31.

It was to see if he could do it.

"I was fascinated by the idea that what amounts to a simple bit of hanger wire and chicken wire could get me a better HD signal to watch than cable or satellite delivers," Opala said.

He got the plans off the internet. The project cost him around $50 for parts, another $20 or so for a special set of straps to mount the antenna to his chimney and a weekend of tinkering.

"On Sunday night, I took it outside, leaned it against the house, pointed it at the CN Tower and watched the CBC news in astonishing image quality," said Opala. "The next weekend, I had it on the roof."

Some older TVs to be useless without converter

You won't have to build your own antenna to catch digital signals after Aug. 31. If you subscribe to a cable or satellite package, you won't have to do a thing, except keep paying those hefty monthly bills for channel packages you can't customize.

What is digital TV?

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 uses less bandwidth than analog TV. Regulators are reallocating that bandwidth for other purposes, such as advanced internet wireless and emergency public safety services.

But for the small minority of Canadians who prefer to pull in their TV for free, things are about to get a little trickier.

The switch to digital will render your older TV set useless unless you buy a digital-to-analog converter box — or live in parts of the country where the CRTC says broadcasters can continue to operate their aging analog transmitters. Newer TVs with digital tuners built-in can receive DTV signals, but they will need antennas to pull in the digital broadcasts.

The CRTC is requiring all broadcasters to go digital in 30 markets, including all provincial capitals and cities with a population of 300,000 or greater. Transmitters located in less populated rural areas are exempt. Broadcasters have the option of gradually replacing them with digital transmitters or shutting them down completely — again forcing viewers with older TV sets to make changes.

Gregory Taylor, a post-doctoral researcher with Ryerson University, has spent years studying the switch to digital. He says too many Canadians are being denied the benefits of digital television.

"A major problem with the transition is that we are creating two systems for the over-the-air market in Canada," Taylor said. "At a time when the technology allows this incredible leap in quality of over-the-air service, we're actually cutting back on access to this technology across most of this country."

De facto privatization of public airwaves

The CRTC's initial ruling would have required the CBC to shut down 22 analog transmitters (10 for English programming and 12 for French) but on Aug. 16 the regulator announced it would allow the public broadcaster to keep these transmitters active  until Aug. 31, 2012. The CBC will now replace 25 of its more than 600 transmitters. The old analog signal has been available to virtually every Canadian, in every part of the country. After the switch, 14 digital transmitters will beam out English programming while 13 will send out French programming.

What you'll need to receive over-the-air digital TV

  • A newer TV with built-in digital ATSC tuner – or an older TV with a digital-to- analog converter box.
  • An antenna. Outdoor antennas will pull in more stations than indoor ones. If you currently pull in only a few channels, you probably won't pull in any more after the switch to DTV.
  • If you want to watch HDTV, you'll need a high definition set. A digital converter box won't display HDTV on an old TV.
  • If you live near Windsor, Ont., you'll have access to the most over-the-air digital signals in Canada. A good outdoor antenna will pick up several Canadian channels as well as channels from Detroit and several nearby American cities. Most broadcast in HD.

That means viewers in London, Ont., where upwards of 30,000 residents would have been affected by the switch, will now be able to pick up CBC broadcasts over the air for another year. Also, viewers in Quebec City, where the CBC does not maintain an English station, will be able to watch Hockey Night in Canada uninhibited as the transmitter that carries English programming will also not be shut down. In addition, viewers in predominantly English markets like Calgary, Saskatoon and Windsor, Ont. will be able to tune in to Tout le monde en parle for another year.

Global and CTV are replacing all their transmitters. However, even together they have far fewer analog transmitters than the CBC.

The CBC says it will maintain analog transmitters where it's allowed, running them until they finally break down. After that, people in those areas will have to subscribe to a cable or satellite service if they want to watch television.

Taylor says that's a huge problem.

"If you get back to the roots of Canadian broadcasting, the spectrum that over-the-air broadcasting uses is public property," he said. "It is commonly held public property. Once we move it to a strictly satellite or cable distribution model, it becomes privatized. They are owned by private, for-profit companies. It's a pretty fundamental shift — and it's very tough to get things back into the public realm once they've been privatized."

No incentive to promote over-air broadcasts

Taylor notes that distribution companies like Shaw and Bell — which own Global and CTV, respectively, as well as numerous specialty cable channels — don't have an incentive to have people watch their over-the-air broadcasts. At least not without a nudge from broadcast regulators.

"The incentive for them is to get [customers] into their delivery systems and have a good steady income from everyone's monthly bill," Taylor said.

Last February, Taylor told the CRTC that Canadians aren't ready for the switch to digital TV. In March, the broadcast regulator ordered networks to carry at least six 30-second public service announcements every day about the switch. He says the ads are disappointing.

"A few of them, their first point is that in order to not be disadvantaged by the transition, you can subscribe to a digital delivery service — cable or satellite," Taylor said. "I don't think they go far enough to let people know that there is good quality over the air — in fact, greatly improved quality over the air in most major urban centres in Canada right now."

Meanwhile, thanks to his home-made antenna, Opala and his family now enjoy close to two dozen over-the-air channels, most of them in high definition. His next project? Rigging up a PVR that's not tied to one of those big cable or satellite conglomerates.