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The DTV Transition’s Dirty Little Secret

FCC says only 74% of stations will be operating in the UHF band after the DTV cut-off date.


If you’ve installed an HDTV antenna, there’s a good chance you’ll be tweaking its position on February 17, 2009.

The government has done a great job informing the general public about the upcoming transition to digital broadcasts on February 17, 2009.

But tens of thousands of consumers, who followed all the government advice and bought the converter boxes, will still wake up that winter day to find several channels have turned to “snow.”

And for some, there’s not much they can do about it until that day.

Be Ready to Tweak Some Antennas

About 90 percent of all digital TV broadcasts are currently in the UHF band. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), only 74 percent of stations will be operating in the UHF band after the cut-off date. Click here to see where your city stands. (pdf)

Another 24 percent will be switching into the High VHF band, while the remaining 2 percent will be in the low VHF band. (Note: These numbers have been rounded.)

What does this mean for integrators? It could mean thousands of customers who relied on custom installers to prepare them for the transition with an HD antenna might be screaming into the telephone or flooding your email that day because they don’t realize they need to adjust their HD antenna.

It also means that on February 17, 2009 you’d better be “all hands on deck” for simply going out and tweaking antennas, if you’ve installed a lot of HD antennas. Wipe the calendar clean of new installations that week.

Digital Broadcasts to Move to VHF Frequency

Here’s what’s going on: After the analog shut-off, some stations will move their digital broadcast frequency from UHF to the now-vacant VHF frequency that they were previously using for analog.

One reason broadcasters are doing this is because it requires less power to broadcast VHF. In other words … it’s cheaper.

WABC in N.Y. will move its digital channel currently in UHF to its “old” frequency of channel 7 — High VHF, 174-180MHz. Some stations are making the switch early so customers can “find” their over-the-air signals. And Wilmington N.C. has already adopted the DTV transition.

Some stations are tweaking their frequency locations, but after February 17, 2009 all of these changes are permanent. The FCC ruling is considered final. (pdf) So the “channels” or frequencies of TV channels do not change after the DTV transition. The channels remain 6 MHz wide and are exactly as they were before for well over 50 years.

The only difference is that the UHF band shrinks after the cut-off date, topping out at 700MHz. Channels 52 through 69 will no longer be active for TV. These frequencies are being auctioned by the government for other uses.

Therefore, the “new” UHF band will be 470 MHz to 700 MHz, about 100MHz smaller than the UHF band as it exists today.

The VHF bands remain the same: low VHF (channels 2 to 6) will be between 54 MHz and 88MHz, while High VHF (channels 7 to 13) will be in the 174 MHz to 216MHz range. Regardless of band assignments, all full-power TV stations will broadcast digitally after the February transition.

FCC Explains

Here is the FCC's explanation from its Web site:

What are the channel assignments for digital television?

Under the FCC spectrum plan, we have provided most existing broadcasters with access to a 6 MHz channel for digital broadcasting within a core digital TV spectrum, i.e., TV channels 2 to 51. Because of the limited availability of spectrum and the need to accommodate all existing facilities with minimal interference among stations, however, during the transition some broadcasters would be provided DTV channels outside of this core spectrum (channels 52 to 69). These broadcasters would have to move their DTV operations to a channel in the core spectrum when one became available. Broadcasters whose existing NTSC channels were in the core spectrum could move their DTV operations to their NTSC channel at some time in the future. Broadcasters whose DTV transition channel and existing NTSC channel were both outside of the core area could obtain a new DTV channel when channels in the core spectrum are recovered. After the transition period (2006), the VHF channels (2-13) will remain available for DTV and the analog TV service will end on all channels.

Another thing that could add some confusion among your clients is the use of “virtual channel” tags. This is being done to maintain “branding” of the TV channel.

For example, WCBS in the New York market is and has been known as Channel 2 (analog) and Channel 2 (DTV) but its actual DTV channel is currently UHF 56 (with a frequency of 723 MHz).

But, after the DTV transition, the UHF band will not go higher than UHF 52. So WCBS will change to UHF Channel 33 but still be referred to as Channel 2.

So all in all, the DTV transition will be smoother for some than others.

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Article Topics

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About the Author

Jason Knott, Editor, CE Pro
Jason has covered low-voltage electronics as an editor since 1990. He joined EH Publishing in 2000, and before that served as publisher and editor of Security Sales, a leading magazine for the security industry. He served as chairman of the Security Industry Association’s Education Committee from 2000-2004 and sat on the board of that association from 1998-2002. He is also a former board member of the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation. He is currently a member of the CEDIA Education Action Team for Electronic Systems Business. Jason graduated from the University of Southern California.

9 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by Bryan  on  09/19  at  06:41 PM

The number of people the transition effects that are still only using analog antenna’s is so small that it is not an issue…furthermore, it is even less likely for a CI’s customer to use an antenna over cable or satellite service.

over the past 10 years I have run into exactly 2 people who use an antenna and have no cable or satellite service out of probably 30-40,000 households.

Where the bulk of the transition issues will arise is when cable companies stop broadcasting a standard analog signal and go to just digital requiring their customers to upgrade their service…or buy a new TV and try to make it work with its atsc/QAM tuner.

Posted by Jon Bell  on  09/22  at  09:35 AM

It’s generally accepted that somewhere between 10% and 15% of US households rely on over-the-air antennas for TV and do not use a cable or satellite service.  I don’t consider that to be “so small that it is not an issue.”

The situation described in this article applies mainly to people who had not previously used OTA TV, but had UHF-only antennas installed specifically to receive HDTV.  There are probably more people who will have the opposite problem: they had VHF-only antennas installed many years ago, to watch the big three OTA networks, most of whose analog stations are in the VHF band.  Some of their digital stations are likely to be on UHF after the transition.

Posted by Greg  on  09/22  at  12:03 PM

I think its a big issue out of nothing. The FCC recommended installers to install an antenna using “Smart Antenna Technology” to prevent this problem from happening. Most digital receivers and coverters were suppose to be compatable with the Smart Antenna.

The Smart Antennas were and still are not widely available, and the range of these antennas is roughly 30 miles.

Posted by Steve  on  09/23  at  10:49 AM

Did this article mention why the tweak(s) is required or the nature of it?  Am I just missing it, or is it supposed to obvious to me that moving from UHF to VHF requires antenna tweaking?

Is it a directional thing?  Am I supposed to trim the antenna elements to fine tune it?  Add additional elements?  Jon implies I may need multiple or multi-band antennas…

No I’m not an antenna guy, just curious…

Posted by jbrown  on  09/23  at  11:26 AM

There is a big difference in the size of a VHF and UHF antenna.

If you want to pick up channels 2-6 in a “fringe” area, you will need a very large and cumbersome antenna. That little set of rabbit ears camped out on top of the wall unit ain’t gonna cut it. Channels 7-13 require a slightly smaller antenna, and the UHF channels use the smallest, most compact antennas and have the best range.

So your local “Channel 4” may be a good bit tougher to pick up than your local “Channel 25”. And if Channel 4 and Channel 25 are broadcast from different towers, you need separate VHF and UHF antennas and they will need to be pointed in different directions. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Hopefully only a few of your clients want or need terrestrial reception, because doing it right isn’t easy.

Posted by up yours  on  09/23  at  03:50 PM

To the guy that says the 10-15% of us are a none issue? Go F%#@ yourself.

Posted by to you too  on  09/24  at  04:02 PM

using an antenna still? that’s terrible. i can’t believe this is even an issue, a real push for going back to OTA is as likely a real push for going back to steam… get with the times and use that next step

Posted by Ken  on  09/26  at  03:25 PM

There about 113 million TV households in the US. Cable and satellite have around 96 million subscribers. There was study a few years back by the GAO that found that of households that were connected to sat./cable about 24% had at least one TV NOT connected to sat./cable.

Granted this may be a spare TV in the garage or basement being used for gaming or occasional use, or a guest bedroom or the like. Being able to keep those sets viable may be an opportunity for you.

However for people in rural areas or “vacation / second homes” antennas may be the only choice if you want true local reception. Cable may not be a viable option. What satellite may provide may not be truly “local” TV.

Have you ever compared OTA to the HD feed from some cable systems on a well set up large screen? You may well take back your steam comment “to you too.”

Besides knowing about technology even if it’s not the latest or most exciting should be the mark of a professional.

Posted by Ed  on  10/08  at  03:39 PM

There is another safety issue regarding the abandoning of analog tv:

During hurricanes and other disasters, millions of people rely on battery operated televisions for important visual information such as storm maps, lists of shelters, status of their areas, etc.

Come 2009, we will be taking a step BACK in technology and safety to audio-only. As a personal example, During Hurricane Andrew, we watched the televised weather map on our battery tv to determine when the eye was approaching and when the hurricane had past. We also followed the graphically displayed lists of food and water locations that were too numerous to list via audio alone.

There should have been a provision for analog transmission during disasters based on the importance of the information and the millions of battery-operated analog televisions.

Currently, there are only a handful of expensive battery operated digital tuner equipped televisions available and they all have dismal battery life and require outdoor antennas unless you live in the backyard of a transmitter.

One step forward, two steps back!


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