Questions Abound As Digital TV Transition Deadline Arrives

Canada was scheduled to complete the digital television transition today, with stations switching their over-the-air broadcast signals from analog to digital. The transition represented a tremendous opportunity to advance the Canadian digital agenda leading to higher quality digital over-the-air broadcasts, freed-up spectrum that could be used to facilitate greater telecom competition, and the promise of billions in new revenues to fund a national digital strategy.

Yet despite the promise of the transition, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues the near-total absence of policy and political leadership has led to a digital disappointment. Some broadcasters will complete the transition on time, but the CBC has been granted a one-year delay. There has been minimal publicity about the change, which may leave some Canadians without television access by the end of the week. To make matters worse, the government has thus far failed to articulate a policy on how the freed-up spectrum will be auctioned and how the revenues will be allocated.

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 antennas – “rabbit ears” – to access those broadcast signals.  

On August 31st, most Canadian broadcasters will have completed the 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, which will open the door to new telecom services. It also requires those relying on over-the-air signals to obtain a digital converter box to convert the new digital signal back into analog signals their TV sets will recognize (cable and satellite customers are not affected).

Fingers can be pointed at several targets for the digital disappointment. The federal government adopted a hands-off approach from the outset. In contrast, the U.S. government subsidized the cost of the transition, establishing a coupon program to ensure that all consumers retained television access. Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore firmly rejected a similar approach.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, charged with leading several aspects of the transition, failed to muster much enthusiasm from the Canadian broadcast community. CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein repeatedly raised alarm bells about the need to prioritize the transition, yet private broadcasters were loath to go beyond the bare minimum. Some opposed investing in public service announcements alerting the Canadian public about the effect of the transition. Given this lack of publicity, there may now be thousands of Canadians left without television signals by the end of the week.

Canada’s public broadcaster obtained a last minute reprieve after it became apparent it could not meet the deadline. The CBC still faces a financial squeeze in completing the digital transition, raising questions about whether the federal government will find new funds to address the shortfall (the CBC has already stated that it is likely to seek a further extension).

While the digital transition begins as a broadcast issue, it will soon revert to a question of telecom policy. The freed-up spectrum – known as the 700 MHz spectrum – opens up a host of possibilities for new innovation, competitors, and open Internet access. It is viewed as particularly valuable spectrum since it easily penetrates walls, making it ideal for delivering wireless high-speed Internet services. The government carried out a public consultation on the issue earlier this year, but has kept mum on its plans.

This week was to have marked the end of the Canadian digital television transition. Instead, only a patchwork of broadcasters are completing the transition on time, many Canadians may be left without access, and there is lingering uncertainty about what comes next for the freed-up spectrum.


  1. It’s mess all right
    From a technical standpoint the transition in Ottawa has been a bit of a mess. First, the country’s biggest (and presumably richest) network (Bell’s CTV) waited until absolutely the last minute to switch.

    In the USA, almost all of the digital stations are in the UHF band, and most so-called “digital” antennas are designed for UHF, with middling to poor performance in the VHF band. Problem is, in Ottawa the two biggest channels, CTV and Global, have remained on the VHF band. Global is on the worst possible channel (VHF-LO ch. 6, which is adjacent to the FM radio band) and CTV is on VHF-HI ch. 13. To make matters worse, Global’s power is (get this) only a mere 3300 watts, which makes it very difficult to receive with an indoor antenna.

    The next problem is incorrect or missing PSIP data, which provides the time-of-day clock, program title, ratings, and program description. Many of the channels are missing the data altogether (OMNI1 & 2, CityTV), and many have incorrect data (CBC Ottawa has CBC Toronto’s PSIP data, and the time-of-day is off by an hour for six months a year). OMNI’s time of day was recently off by 19 minutes. Global’s PSIP data has a bug that makes it impossible to receive with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center.

  2. Poorly executed
    I live in a small rural community and the only broadcast station we receive is CBC. The feed is a rebroadcast from Vancouver even though Kelowna is closer. I have tried to find what will happen to the local analog re-transmitter that services our town but to no avail.

    My point is the information is not there even for someone who is aware enough to look for it, what of the many who will be surprised out of the blue?

    Poor job CRTC & Mr. Moore.

  3. What happens to SD signals on cable/satellite?
    Right now SD and HD signals are both on the carriers medium, taking up additional bandwidth. Will the carriers now be required to remove the SD signals and stop charging extra for HD signals?

    The US (which we seem to copy so much) forbids offering a degraded signal and I thought Canada had signed up to the same principle.

    Seems more important than offering coupons for set-top converters.

  4. Sure…the “data” has a bug which only shows up with Microsoft Windows. Ha ha ha!
    “Global’s PSIP data has a bug that makes it impossible to receive with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center.”

    I have a hard time believing it’s the “PSIP” data that has the bug. Not only would that be deviating from the Microsoft trend, but would also be quite ironic!

  5. What people fail to see is the real reason….
    For the switch – Free TV down the road will be encrypted. To get the key, you have to insert $2/channel/month ($10/month in Canada) to decode the signal.

    Don’t believe me? Remember when cable came out, it was 100% commercial free. Then to “offset increased costs”, they added commercials AND raised your rates. NOW look at it!

  6. Meanwhile, in Soviet Union
    And this is how Soviet TV was switching off transmitters at the end of each day

  7. Meanwhile, in Soviet Union
    Soviet transmitters were also switched off from 1300 to 1600. This is how they were coming back (it looks like a distant reception):

    As you see, Soviet TV had a lot of airtime to spare.

  8. Our legit links are OFF, the spam links are ON?
    Hey Professor… time to hire a webmaster 😉

  9. Natalyie Van says:

    I hope this transition went well because I know from experience that digital technology is way better than spectrum TV. Good article!

    Man & Van

  10. @Doug
    Don’t feel too bad about Global from Ottawa. I live near Carleton Place and can’t pick it up with a YAGI antenna mounted outside at about 11 m above the ground. At least they are still broadcasting on analog (as of last night) so I can get my “Family Guy” fix 🙂