DIGITAL TELEVISION PRIMER                  
Written by MIKE KOHL at GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS
                                                                           
The United States Congress mandated that the Federal Communications Commission create a Digital broadcasting system for all U.S. TV stations.  Over 1600 full powered broadcast television stations converted exclusively to digital by June 12, 2009.  Thousands of remaining Low Power TV and Translator stations are presently letting their local marketplace as well as financial abilities decide when to convert to digital.  Nearly a year after all full-power stations converted to digital, at least 2000 LPTV and translator facilities have done the same.  It has not been easy for many of these stations, often operating as nonprofit entities without any funding to convert their 30 to 50 year old shoestring operations into the digital format required in the 21st century.  Fortunately, the Obama administration did open a path for many of these groups to obtain federal funding to manage the transition.  There is now a 2015 deadline for remaining stations to convert to digital, and the reality is that a sizeable number may simply go off the air rather than take the steps necessary to go digital.

There are technical as well as financial reasons for problems in many smaller translator operations, which are often hundreds of miles away from their originating station.  A prime example is in the state of Nevada, which has the rare distinction of having over 10% of the remaining full power TV stations transmitting in digital via channel 2 to 6 low band frequencies.  The FCC was very conservative in the initial granting of power levels to VHF channels, especially those in Low Band, with the result that many stations have a small fraction of their geographical coverage in digital format, as opposed to that once enjoyed in analog.  Many stations originally on low band 2 to 6, especially those on the West Coast and in mountain regions, were able to get permanent digital facilities on High Band VHF channels 7 to 13.  These are very advantageous in mountainous areas, because high band VHF penetrates hills and valleys much better than UHF, and requires smaller sized antennas than stations transmitting on low band channels 2 to 6.  Still, there are problems in some areas due to varying levels of digital signals that change with weather and also have seasonal variations.  The result is that distantly located translator stations that once had pretty good luck with analog pickup find that their new digital signal is not able to provide reliable coverage under everyday conditions.  Solutions could include being fed by satellite, microwave systems, or simply giving up and going off the air...telling those without network reception to consider DISH Network or DirecTV for a solution.  Desperate measures in many cases for those in the most rural locations.

Those that have gotten beyond the problems of getting a signal for their transmitter are finding a very interesting market, compared to the good old days of analog reception.  A TV transmitting facility for digital can often have not only a high definition version of their original channel, plus as many as 3 or 4 additional standard definition channels in standard definition mode.  Those choosing to not transmit in HD at all can often squeeze 6 standard definition signals into the same space.  In the vast majority of situations, there is new channel space suddenly available for new services.  PBS was the leader in the race to digital, with many of the stations sending not only a high definition feed of their main signal, but adding a standard definition signal for statewide networks, and adding brand new PBS services such as PBS World (news and public affairs), PBS Kids (children's programming), PBS Create (do it yourself shows) and the Spanish language V-Me service.  Many commercial stations added news and weather channels.  Other enterprising groups found a need for certain niche market programming that could be sold to broadcasters across the country.  Enter channels such as Retro TV Network, Me TV, Antenna TV, and others with classic TV shows from the past, and This TV with ad-supported classic movies.  The Cool TV has recently expanded in a major way for music videos.  Some stations have even added radio stations to the mix, or at least taking a local news-talk channel and putting it on the audio track with a weather channel billboard.  Shopping channels and religious channels have found new outlets for their programming and the cost is much less to rent space on an existing facility, than to go through the process of building a full power station on their own.  We have not begun to mention the huge explosion in foreign language programming suddenly becoming available to a huge part of the country, especially Spanish-language channels.

We are now beyond the confusion of 2009, after the initial conversion of major facilities to digital.  There was a federal program to subsidize the purchase of low cost basic digital converter boxes to provide these new digital channels on existing analog televisions.  All new televisions are capable of the new digital format.  It has been so long that many people have been relying upon cable TV for their signals, that an entire new industry to provide compatible TV antennas and accessories has been created.  Digital reception requirements are not the same as analog, and new installation techniques and realities must be considered.  No more ghosting or snowy pictures.  Digital is either perfect, or in the case of insufficient signal, nothing.  Connect a proper antenna system to your digital converter or digital television, and you will likely be very impressed by the improvements.  Metro areas can often use indoor rabbit-ear type antennas, especially on stronger UHF stations.  Those channels transmitting on VHF (channels 2-13) may find that an indoor antenna is not enough for reliable reception.  Outdoor antennas are then recommended.  Placement of an outdoor antenna in an attic may provide enough added signal versus the previous indoor rabbit ear antenna to make things work, but antennas inside buildings are often shielded by walls thick enough or dense enough to severely limit TV reception.  You may have to consider mounting the antenna outdoors, especially if trying for a signal outside of your local area.

UHF television antennas have physically smaller antenna elements than those required for VHF frequencies.  VHF channels provide more solid signals in hilly or otherwise uneven terrain, but require a larger antenna.  Most digital TV channels on VHF will be using channels 7 through 13, which require a high-band VHF antenna separate from a UHF array, or a combined UHF/VHF antenna.  There are approximately 40 full-power stations left in the entire country that will use the VHF Low Band (Channels 2 through 6), which requires an even larger antenna for adequate reception of those frequencies.
There are now a significant number of LPTV (low power) stations applying for coverage in big cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, providing a sizeable coverage area for those equipped with proper low-band VHF antennas.

The first thing to do when connecting a digital TV converter or digital TV set is to attempt reception on your previous TV antenna.  It may actually work.  Many locations that formerly used only VHF channels will find that addition of a UHF array or a VHF/UHF model antenna is needed.  Unless all signals are coming from a small window in one direction, you may need to consider installing a TV rotor, multiple antennas, or manually adjust your rabbit ear antenna when changing channels.  Study our channel charts to see what is available in your immediate area.  We have antennas, rotors and preamps for sale, and plans for more products to be offered in the near future.

The words "Digital" and "HDTV" or "HDTV ready" have been added to antenna and television set labels to take advantage of the confusion in the marketplace.  "HDTV capable antenna" may have special meaning to someone with a new digital television, but it may be an attractive set of rabbit-ear antennas in a clever package.  The reality is that rabbit-ear type antennas CAN work indoors within most metropolitan areas, but with great variations in signal quality.  Many people in places such as Las Vegas have found that it is next to impossible to get good reception inside their stucco walled houses, which have a layer of wire mesh in the walls that acts as a shield to many signals.  UHF signals work best indoors with bow-tie or loop antennas, with longer elements needed for VHF channels 2 through 13.  Placement of indoor antennas near a window, especially on the side of the house facing a transmitter site, will provide better reception.  Minor adjustments may be needed for acceptable reception of different stations, especially in areas that have multiple TV transmitter locations.  Those living in suburbs and outlying areas will usually need an outdoor antenna for reliable digital reception.  The good news is that in most situations, digital signals transmitted on UHF will be much more reliable than analog UHF signals, which are often quite weak, especially noticeable on higher channel numbers.  One characteristic of digital reception is the "cliff effect".  This is an all or nothing situation, where those in hilly areas will find perfect reception on the high side of a hill facing a television transmitter.  Once you get below a certain point on the "back side" of a hill, there is simply no way to get a digital signal.  Whereas analog signals may experience various degrees of weak and ghosting signals, digital is muted out below a certain signal level, and you get no picture at all.  Signal is where you find it, and huge differences in reception can be found with minor changes in antenna direction.  You may need an antenna rotor, or multiple antennas, to have access to all available signals.  Bottom line is that every location will have a different set of antenna requirements which can best determined by comparing notes with the neighbors, and contacting us, or a local professional for further advice and equipment.

There has never been more free television available, and all it requires is a digital converter connected to your existing analog TV, or a digital television set.

For more information, contact us:

E-Mail   globalcm@mhtc.net             Telephone  (9am to 6pm Monday-Friday, Central time)  608-546-2523