Digital TV Transition Could Lead to New Digital Divide

In just over one year, Canada is scheduled to complete the digital television transition, as stations switch from analog to digital broadcasts. While cable and satellite subscribers will not notice the change, over one million Canadians that rely on over-the-air signals will be affected.  Despite the experience in other countries that left many consumers without digital converter boxes staring at blank screens, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues the Canadian government seems content to leave the switch to the private sector, implausibly claiming “industry-led solutions will ensure a smooth transition for consumers.”

The basic notion of the transition is fairly straightforward.  For decades, Canadian broadcasters have used spectrum to transmit over-the-air analog broadcast signals.  Before the widespread use of cable and satellite, many Canadians used antennae – “rabbit ears”- to access those broadcast signals.  

On August 31, 2011, Canadian broadcasters will switch from analog to digital broadcasts. The shift to digital brings several advantages including better image and sound quality as well as more efficient use of spectrum that will open the door to new telecom services.  It also requires those relying on over-the-air signals to have a television with a digital tuner or obtain a digital converter box to convert the digital signal back to analog.

Contrary to popular belief, many Canadians still rely on over-the-air signals.  In its latest update on the transition, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission estimated that up to 857,000 households in larger markets do not subscribe to either cable or satellite.  On top of those households, tens of thousands of rural households also depend upon over-the-air signals.

The CRTC has opened the door to a satellite alternative for rural communities, but households that rely on over-the-air signals in larger markets will need a digital converter box in order to continue to watch programs on their existing televisions. In the United States, the government subsidized the cost of the transition, establishing a coupon program that ultimately cost over $1 billion and forced a six-month delay of the transition when politicians feared that too many consumers were not ready.

Unlike the U.S., there will not be a Canadian subsidy program.  While the additional costs could affect lower income Canadians, who are also more likely to rely on the over-the-air signals rather than cable or satellite services, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore has firmly rejected a similar approach.

A successful transition also depends upon educating Canadians about the changes. For example, the United Kingdom has established Digital UK, an independent, not-for-profit organization to the lead its process.  The organization is funded by the country’s private broadcasters and was established at the request of the government.  It maintains a comprehensive website and has launched a nationwide advertising campaign.

By contrast, other than the occasional CRTC release – Chair Konrad von Finckenstein has been sounding the alarm bells on the digital transition for months – the issue has attracted virtually no public attention in Canada. Moore has told Canada’s broadcasters that Canadians had “fair notice” about the transition and that the broadcasters should be prepared to complete the switch on schedule, emphasizing the transition “must remain on track.”

But most Canadian broadcasters see little value in investing in a public education campaign without government support, particularly since they are already spending millions on digital transmitters. In fact, the mandatory deadlines for the transition were only established after it became apparent the broadcasters would not make the switch voluntarily.

The CRTC has tried to push the issue onto the public agenda, but has thus far faced government opposition and broadcaster indifference. As a result, when Canada’s broadcasters flip the switch next summer, hundreds of thousands of Canadians may find themselves on the wrong side of a new digital divide.


  1. Stewart Rand says:

    Big deal
    I really do not think this is a big deal. Firstly, free over-the-air television is a want, not a need. If people are starved for up-to-date information, turn on a radio or go to a the library and pick up a newspaper or hop on the Internet. You can get a personal radio for a few dollars and the library is free (yes, this is inconvenient for rural communities, I know).

    If people really *want* to continue getting free TV signal, they can dish out a small amount for a converter box. I don’t think our government should be spending millions to outfit people with free TV. Our family used rabbit ears for a while, but I don’t think we ever took TV as a “need” or something we expected to be provided for free.

    Expecting the industry to warn the public about this is unrealistic, but at the same time I think there should be much higher priorities for our tax dollars than handing out coupons or spending money advertising the transition.

  2. Large Markets Are Already Digital
    This article seems to be ignoring the fact that of the “857,000 households in larger markets do not subscribe to either cable or satellite”, most would have already transitioned to digital. All large markets moved to digital a long, long time ago, they just still have their analog transmitters active. Also, most large markets are near the US border so people were inclined to make the switch back when the US turned off their analog.

    In the end, the switch has to be made at some point to free up these airwaves so that the bandwidth can be used to bring more competition into areas like 4G. I would rather deal with a painful switchover and in-turn have some more competition to the Rogers/Bell duopolly.

    Also, I don’t think the government should be subsidising consumers in this, at all. TV is not an essential service in any way, shape, or form. Heck if the whole country’s TVs went dark for a week it would probably be a good thing…

  3. Just let the market figure it out – Moore tweet o.0
    I do live in a rural community and the only channel we get is CBC. When you live outside of the major centers, what limited information services you do have are even more cherished. It is my understanding that a mandate of the CBC is that it be made available across the country. Since this is a sparsely populated area I do not see out analog transmission tower being updated to digital. Yes, I could get satellite but that will run me around $50 a month which is out of my budget range. I will be interested to learn about the ‘free’ (the equipment must be purchased by the customer) satellite service they are proposing for rural areas. I understand the channel selection will be similar to what could be received over the air locally.

    Either way there will be a cash outlay for a converter box (urban) or satellite (rural). And while the cost itself, is reasonable, is not so big an issue for me, I do think a better education campaign than “Canadians had fair notice” is needed. When I mention the transition to people around here I get mostly blank stares.

    Once again, Mr. Moore has done a bang up job for Canadian consumers.

  4. This is pretty stupid.
    This issue has been, is, and will continue poorly handled by all parties involved. The government and the CRTC are two of those parties. The CRTC is plain useless, and the Harper government is simply a poorly conceived, corrupt, power-hungry organization. The Canadian television industry is the other main party, and has been and is a slug resistant to change thanks to the fact that most of our already over-sized media conglomerates are associated or outright owned by cable/satellite providers. CTVglobemedia and Bell Canada. Omni, CityTV, etc. and Rogers Communications. Canwest soon-to-be with Shaw. Of course, they would try to make the digital transition process and painful as possible, because their business thrives when people abandon OTA transmissions. Furthermore, said conglomerates have spent millions on unnecessary deals, like CGM’s acquisition of CHUM and Canwest’s Alliance Atlantis and other purchases. I cannot believe that the Canadian government to allow such oligopolies to be created without thinking about the repercussions, such as the waste of time, resources, and money that was the incredibly useless “LocalTVMatters” movement which when looked at logically was just the equivalent of a guy arguing with himself.

    Our OTA infrastructure, simply put, sucks. Radio signals are adequate, but the TV side has fallen far behind. In the Ottawa area, A SIGNIFICANT CANADIAN CENTRE, there are three, maybe four English channels. Compare that to the GTA, which has several Canadian channels complimented by the signals coming from American stations.

    Yes, OTA TV is a just another sector in Canada, like telecommunications, that has stagnated thanks to money-centred oligopolies and a useless government and government agencies.

    And before you say “Just use the Internet!”, ask yourself who controls most of the phone lines and other Internet access points.

  5. Rural access.
    Well, like Crockett, I live in a rural area. There is no wired cable TV, there is no wired Internet, we barely get radio due to the trees and I would need a large antenna to get over-air TV. Luckily I live close enough to a cell tower that a local wireless Internet providor rents space on so I can get wireles Internet, but at great expense compared to the wired Internet in town. Otherwise, my only options would be dial-up or the wildly expensive 3G air cards. We have satelite, pimarily for Treehouse TV and YTV for the kids…also at great expense.

    This may be a necessary evil, or at least that’s what they keep tellin gus, but it ultimately ends up costing more for those in rural areas, those who are already paying more for a lower quality service.

  6. My optimism is fading
    /rant I’m usually a pretty optimistic guy, but I just re-read the article and did some research and I must say that our our current government have their technological heads in the sand and their hands up their .. well you can guess. Incompetent I think is too generous a term for them. Mr. Moore’s game plan for the digital transition seems to be tell no one and let them eat cake. Does this minister have any technological competency apart from knowing how to block tweeters? His fail on this as well as the epic one on C-32 leads me to despair for Canada’s digital economy. I don’t really care about the government’s need to save face. For once, perchance, would they put peoples needs above their own blind ideology? I fear not. /rant

  7. OTA TV in Canada Post DTV
    Just one more thing to clarify post DTV transition. In the major urban areas some broadcasters will provide OTA signals but not all will. They are not bound to provide the same coverage area as they had before. This is not the case in the US. In fact, because most brodcasters in Canada are part of a cable/satellite group there is no incentive to improve OTA. In most countries radio spectrum is public property and is leased out to users. In Canada it looks like spectrum is a payback from the government at the time. Canadians will not be getting any value at all from DTV unlike the media organisations who will get enormous profits

  8. RE: ed k
    “In fact, because most brodcasters in Canada are part of a cable/satellite group there is no incentive to improve OTA.”

    Exactly. Just as I said before.

  9. Understandable that broadcasters are not enthusiastic about OTA
    Television broadcasters are not in the business of providing an information service. They are in the business of providing viewers to their advertisers. I imagine they consider OTA viewers to be the least desirable to their advertisers. OTA viewers do not spend disposable income on cable or satellite TV, after all.

    Although I could afford it, I don’t subscribe to cable or satellite. In Ottawa, I can only get digital CBC OTA. The money I don’t spend on cable or satellite might be spent on advertiser’s products if I were enticed by their commercials. However, because broadcasters are ignoring me, I don’t have much in the way of channel selection, and I don’t watch much broadcast television. I guess I’m ignoring them in return.

  10. Cable Rate Hike
    My fear is that the cable companies will use the consumer confusion over the digital OTA switchover to force subscribers to move to more expensive digital cable packages (as happened in the US during their switchover).

  11. Of course cable rates will go up. They have to pay for that extra hardware somehow without affecting their profit…so it’s the consumer that will ultimately pay. If I were to guess, I think it’ll likely bring cable prices in-line with satelite prices.

  12. I like how the Canadian Government won’t subsidize the cost of converter boxes to those who rely on OTA TV. It isn’t the governments responsibility, nor the tax payers, to ensure that everyone gets TV signals, it is up to the house owners to do so. Television is a ‘privilege’, not a ‘right’, and you pay for that privilege, just as you would pay for internet access or phone service.

  13. phillipsjk says:

    Advertising a non-existant product is pointless.
    Last time I asked about a Digital converter box at a local electronics store, they did not have any. I asked because I saw they were selling “HDTV” antennas. The truth is, unless the signal is weak (which it may be), you don’t need a new antenna. Digital TV uses the same spectrum.

    I am also concerned The it may not be possible to buy a Digital converter box with Analog outputs if the industry cartels get their way. That would imply you need to get a new TV with digital inputs like HDMI that would likely include a Digital tuner anyway.

    I think the best solution would be to buy a small form-factor computer and install a Digital Tuner card as well as a Video card with TV-out. Make a PVR out of it. However, all of that is more expensive than a “simple” converter box would be. When (if) bill C-32 passes, such a box may be considered a “circumvention device.”

  14. RE: Advertising a non-existant product is pointless.
    Of course they would like to see the end of analog TV. HDMI gives them full control. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve fully researched the effect this is going to have. A LOT of people still have analog TVs. Why? Because they’re easy and many people do not have the technical skillset required for much of the newer technology.

    I do have an HDMI capable TV, but am only running composite out of my satelite receiver, because that’s all my OLD satelite receiver supports. I wonder how long it will be before I’m forced to change. The whole digital push does worry me a bit since looking back we’re basing so much on a standard (HDMI) that hasn’t even stablized yet. It seems as though they’re rushing. The HDMI standard has changed version 4 times in just a few years…each time requiring new, expensive cables to take advantage of newer features. On the bright side, most hardware these days are firmware upgradible. The disadvantage here is that you take a hit on performance. The HDMI handshake can take several seconds and can be quite distracting when dropped in the middle of viewing something…a common problem with HDMI.

    NOW, where does this leave our less-technically-inclined population. My wife couldn’t set up our home theater system, and it’s not complicated as far as these things go. She wouldn’t even know how to turn it all on properly if it weren’t for the Logitech Harmony remote, which does everything for her. In actuality, if you take away the entire home theatre, she still probably wouldn’t even be able to set up our TV with the satelite receiver if left to her own devices, and she’s a well educated engineer, just not technically inclined in that area. I don’t even want to talk about the technical prowess of my mother. Many in her generation are going to be screwed by this change, left with little options other than hiring someone to install an maintain their TVs and receivers. TVs used to be devices you just plugged in, screwed on the cable and they worked…not so much the case anymore.

  15. phillipsjk says:

    “The disadvantage here is that you take a hit on performance.”
    This is what Pisses me off the most: Were are told it will lead to higher quality TV viewing, Etc, but that is not necessarily the case.

    The advantage of modern “Digital” compression and modulation schemes is that you can pack more information in the same bandwidth, freeing up the spectrum for other uses.

    One thing they can do is put about 6 “SD” channels in the spectrum normally reserved for 1. All other things being equal, the quality should be about the same. I have read some provider overcompress the signal to fit more channels, resulting in poor image quality. Another problem I alluded to is that Digital broadcasts don’t have nearly as much “graceful degradation” built in. It is essentially “all or nothing.”

    As for the conspiracy theory, I should research whether anything protected by the “broadcast flag” is allowed on analog outputs or not. I was basing my assertion on the AACS-LA phasing out analog outputs on blu-ray players by the end of the year.
    It appears “SD” outputs are allowed until 2013.

    Apparently the “Broadcast flag” is not used in the US, but is honored by digital tuners:
    “TV’s broadcast flag has its DRM moment”

    “Into the DTV era, with no broadcast flag mandate”

    So, the “Broadcast flag” is still present, but not mandated by government. The question then becomes: mandated by whom?
    Wikipedia page:
    According to the Wiki, the FCC mandated it, but that decision got turned by “United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.”

  16. @phillipsjk: The converter boxes are out there, you just need to know where to go. I live just outside of Ottawa and have OTA TV. I bought a converter at one of the (ironically) Ottawa big box electronics stores. Cost me ~$80. I say ironically because Ottawa of course has cable, and they make it difficult to put one up due to the bylaws. Even the independent guy in Carleton Place carries one. You are correct that it is difficult to find one outside of the major centres.

    To me, however, is a bigger problem. As time goes on the remaining analogue transmitters will be taken offline and likely not replaced. Why? How will they be able to get spare parts for repairs, etc?

    A mitigating impact, however, is that for those people along the border that use OTA TV, many of them will likely have already purchased a converter box simply to receive the US signals. Thats why I, and everyone that I know who has one, bought one.

  17. We are DTV now
    At my Peterborough home i have 2 converter boxes and one dtv ready tv watching 40 us & CBLT Toronto in DTV and HD. I cancelled Bell sat. pay $0 per month. $1000 investment in tower and equipment, I will never look back. Bring it on Canada. Good bye TV providers!