The Analog Shutdown, for Better or for Worse Print
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Article Index
The Analog Shutdown, for Better or for Worse
- - The Way Things Look Today
- - How Things Look Post-Transition
- - Analog Today vs. Post-Transition
- - Conclusions
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Ready or not, the FCC has set February 17, 2009 as the deadline for all major broadcast television stations to decommission their analog transmitters and finalize their conversion to the new digital standard.  Most people get their television programming via cable, satellite, or fiber optic sources rather than over-the-air (OTA), so most people will be unaffected when the analog transmitters go dark next year.  However, according to FCC estimates, about 14% of all U.S. households rely on OTA broadcasts as their only source of programming.  For these consumers, this change means everything.  If they do not upgrade their equipment to receive digital broadcasts, they may be left with little or nothing to watch after next year.

This country has enjoyed free broadcast television for so long that many people feel like free TV is just a way of life.  Some even feel as if they've been slighted by the government because their current television equipment is being forced into obsolescence.  While there's nothing surprising about newer technologies superseding older technologies, analog TV seems to have a special place in our hearts because it has remained with us virtually unchanged for more than 50 years.  With a change as extensive and swift as the upcoming analog shutdown, there are bound to be some frustrated consumers out there either because they have not been properly informed of their options or because they are unable/unwilling to spend the money to upgrade.

To make matters worse, some early adopters have been reporting a reduction in the total number of digital channels available to them when compared to their previous analog line-up.  For those already reluctant to make the switch, this seems to add insult to injury because now they must also face the possiblity of receiving fewer channels than before.  This is not the outcome one would expect because the FCC, broadcasters, and the consumer electronics industry have worked hard to make sure the new digital network is on par with the old analog network.  However, with a change of this magnitude, it's possible that certain areas have been overlooked in the new plan.  The question is, do these coverage reductions represent a few isolated cases or is this indicative of a more widespread phenomenon.

With the propagation modeling and coverage analysis tools available at TV Fool, we thought it would be interesting to take a peek into the future and see just how good or bad things will get after the transition.  Since the FCC has already announced the final DTV plans for most of the major broadcasters, we can take a closer look at what the OTA environment looks like today and compare it with how things might look after the transition deadline.  Are people really losing channels?  We hope our anaysis will shed some light on the issue and also reveal some interesting facts about how OTA television is going to change approximately one year from now.


How We Set Up the Comparison

Every city has its own unique mix of open space, mountains, valleys, transmitter locations, and neighboring markets.  This makes it dangerous to pick just a handful of test points and generalize their results for the whole country.  OTA environments simply have have too many combinations of variables to consider.  To give this study a solid statistical foundation, we decided to look at a lot of test points, examining as many locations as we could, representing every possible OTA environment.  We wanted to put together the most comprehensive analysis possible to peer into the future of OTA television.

To get the data we want, we decided to simulate before-and-after scenarios for 206,960 individual test locations, representing the residences of over 99% of the total U.S. population.  By using a giant database of locations and population counts extracted from the U.S. Census Bureau, we should have a pretty good representation of all possible OTA environments, and we can tally the number of people affected by each change.  All of the U.S. was used in the analysis except for Alaska and Hawaii, which account for approximately 0.6% of the total population.  As far as we know, this is the most comprehensive analysis of television coverage that has ever been released to the public.

An important criteria for our comparison is that we are assuming no change to the antenna before and after the transition.  If someone is receiving satisfactory analog OTA television with an existing antenna setup, we want to see how well the digital broadcasts perform on the exact same setup.  Naturally, people have the option of upgrading their antenna system to pull in a greater number of digital channels, but that's not the point of this comparison.  We are particularly interested in the relative performance of the old and new broadcast infrastructures, given equal metrics for comparison to the extent possible.

Our analysis also ignores digital "sub-channels".  It is common practice these days for digital signals to carry multiple programming streams simultaneously.  These additional programming streams are often used to carry some extra standard-definition (SD) programming, news, audio-only streams, and weather alerts.  Some would argue that these "extra" channels don't count for much because most of the transmitter's bandwidth is devoted to the main high definition programming stream and because most of these secondary streams carry far less substantive content.  For the purposes of our analysis, one digital transmitter counts as one digital channel.  If you want to give partial credit to some of the sub-channel offerings out there, you could multiply our results by some scaling factor (e.g., x1.2 "channels" per digital transmitter).

It is also worth mentioning that simulations are never perfect.  Simulations cannot take into account every possible effect that occurs in the real world, and there's always the possibility of flaws or errors in the simulation's input data.  There's always a long list of caveats with any simulated analysis, however, we believe that any up-side or down-side bias that might exist in the simulation results would affect both current and future results equally.  Therefore, even if the simulations are not an exact reflection of reality, the relative performance trends are probably still quite informative.  TV Fool tries to maintain the most up-to-date and detailed simulations possible, but absolute accuracy is not guaranteed.


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