June 13, 2009

US Transition to Digital OTA Coversion Completed

On Friday, June 2, all over-the-air (OTA) television broadcasting in the US ceased as analog signals and digital OTA commenced. As of the date of conversion, it was estimated that there are a little over 114 million television households (Nielsen Media). The National Association of Broadcasters poll run by SmithGeiger reported on June 11 that as many as 2.2 million households were unprepared for the transitin as of June 1. Earlier, Neilsen put the number at 2.8 million, or about 2.5% of the television households. Both surveys count the household as unprepared even if they have taken steps such as acquiring coupons for converter boxes or the boxes themselves. Most likely to be unprepared are households whose occupants are under age 35; surprisingly, the best prepared households are those whose occupants are over 55 years old. Minority households lag. The area with the worst preparedness is Albequerque, NM.

If these numbers hold, the transition appears to have been executed relatively smoothly and without major incident or disruption.

Having an interest in technology and in television, a year ago I acquired a digital converter box from Radio Shack, and I had an old Radio Shack UHF-VHF indoor antenna. So I set up a thirty-year old 13" MGA TV which I had won as a prize way back when. I got good reception with the digital OTA for quite a number of channels. Today I rescanned the channel lineup to see what I get. I got very good reception for all channels scanned except WPVI (Channel 6 in Philadelphia). WPVI had opted to retain its VHS channel number and RF frequency position, while all the others moved into or kept their positions in the UHF range. When I moved the antenna from the center of the house to near a window WPVI cleared up and reception for it matched the other channels. Note: one of the good things about digital is that you get the channel perfectly or you don't get it. Analog TV had an ever-changing and sliding scale of reception, from very poor to good. My old TV gets every channel much more clearly using the digital converter than any analog channel it previously received.

Here are the channels I get OTA:

Channel         Call Sign     Channel         Call Sign    
3 - 1KYW 35 - 1Mind
6 - 1WPVI-1 35 - 2GlbMind
6 - 2WPVI-2 35 - 3MindH3
6 - 3WPVI-3 48 - 1WGTW-1
10 - 1WCAU 48 - 2WGTW-2
10 - 2NBCPlus 48 - 3WGTW-3
10 - 3USports 51 - 1WTVE
12 - 1WHYY 57 - 1WPSG
12 - 2YArts 61 - 1Ion
12 - 3YInfo 61 - 2qube
17 - 1WPHL 61 - 3IonLife
17 - 2ThisTV 61 - 4Worship
29 - 1WTFX

So, I get 25 clear OTA local channels using an old TV, old indoor settop antenna, and a new digital converter box. The box cost me $10 plus the coupon from the FCC. Simple, easy, and something that most American households have accomplished with relative ease.

Don't get me wrong. I subscribe to cable and get the Comcast Premium Triple Play package, providing 22 mbs Internet, with all the bells and whistles, digital telephone (including battery backup so that it operates even with a power failure), and many hundreds of channels, including all the premium channels. See my setup here. I do not advocate OTA reception for most people. Cable offers so much more, and the concept of television is changing rapidly. Note: "rapid change" almost always seems slow while it is occurring, and only seems rapid when looking back fondly to the "good old days". Strange, isn't it?

Cable offers something that satellite cannot match: a high-speed back-channel. Today that provides features like true centralized on-demand. Satellite can only offer anticipated downloads to the settop box. The only back-channel it has, in general, is a telephone line. The phone won't provide high-def content on demand. Some satellite configurations have a very modest satellite back-channel, but the technology for that is very limited and likely to remain so.

On demand content is just the beginning. Think about this: when viewing an on demand movie, you can control the playback with your remote control, including fast forward and back. Every time you hit the remote key, that command can go to the cable "head-end" and control the video. It is sub-second in response, and very reliable. This will eventually lead to true consumer interactivity with the content.

Moreover, the concept of "appointment television" like we have been used to since the beginning of TV will be replaced by television viewing habits more similar to your use of Internet. Indeed, we all anticipate the continued convergence of the Internet and television. So, if you like TV, pay some attention to that conversion.

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