Canada is unprepared for switch to digital TV
Many Canadians, especially those who watch American television, have heard about the switch from analogue to digital TV broadcasts that is scheduled to take place in the United States on February 17. While John Podesta, cochair of Barack Obama’s transition team, asked lawmakers in letters on January 8 and 16 to delay the changeover because millions of viewers aren’t prepared, it was still scheduled to go ahead as planned when the Georgia Straight went to press.
According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the switch “will free up the airwaves for police, fire, and emergency rescue communications, allow broadcasters to offer programming with better picture and sound quality and offer more programming choices, and allow for advanced wireless services”. It will also generate revenue for the U.S. government, which is auctioning off sections of the broadcast spectrum to telecommunications and Internet companies.
Broadcasts originating in Canada won’t be affected, and Canadians with analogue cable TV will still be able to watch American channels. However, Canadian viewers who receive American TV broadcasts “over the air” with a rabbit-ear antenna will no longer be able to watch U.S. networks without a digital-to-analogue converter. Although they’re not commonly used in Canada, converters are available at one local big-box retailer for $89.99.
Canada’s digital conversion, scheduled for August 31, 2011, could prove to be even more problematic than the American switch. Ian Morrison, spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, told the Straight that the lack of a clearly defined transition plan will cause trouble for over-the-air viewers.
“The private sector doesn’t care very much about the over-the-air people because—and one could say I’m being cynical, but I’m just explaining it from an economic point of view—they tend to be lower-income, so they’re not as important to the advertisers, and of course their business is to deliver audiences to advertisers,” Morrison said by phone.
Morrison added that when over-the-air viewers “all of a sudden find out in 2011 that they can’t get television anymore—and many of these people are voters—all hell’s going to break loose”.
According to BBM Nielsen estimates for 2008–2009, 9.6 percent of households in Canada receive television broadcasts over the air. (The figure is only seven percent in Vancouver but rises to 13.5 percent for Francophone Quebeckers and 15.3 percent for Francophone Montrealers.) The switch could deny more than 1.25 million Canadian households access to what the Broadcasting Act of 1991 calls “a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty”.
“This is predominantly momentous for those Canadians whose literacy or household income prevents ready access to print media or Internet resources”¦this is not only a cultural problem but could manifest itself as one that concerns public safety and education as well,” states the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre in a May 2008 submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
In the U.S., the government is issuing two digital-converter coupons, each worth US$40, to households that request them, underwritten with the proceeds from the broadcast-spectrum auctions. Unfortunately, the program ran out of funding earlier this month, resulting in a waiting list and prompting the Obama team’s bid to push back the transition date.
Although the U.S. plan is flawed, Canada has nothing even approaching that in the works. In an e-mail response to an interview request, Stéfanie Power, a spokesperson for Industry Canada—which is overseeing the digital switchover—said that at this time, the government has no plans to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes.
Although the CRTC failed to respond to an interview request, the commission’s chair, Konrad von Finckenstein, has publicly expressed apprehension. “Undoubtedly, Canadian consumers will expect similar assistance, especially once the U.S. plan receives wider promotion over the airwaves,” he said in a June 2008 speech at the Broadcasting Invitational Summit in Cambridge, Ontario. He added, “Frankly, I am surprised that neither the industry nor its various umbrella groups have raised this issue more forcefully.”
With no government movement toward a U.S.–style voucher system, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre proposed low-cost basic cable as a solution in its May 2008 CRTC submission. In a telephone interview, executive director Michael Janigan described the organization’s proposal as “a limited basic-service package available at a reasonable price which would include the existing local channels plus the must-carry stations that they currently have, and that it would be price-capped”.
While broadcast-spectrum auctions in the U.S. have raised nearly US$20 billion, there has been little public discussion of the subject in Canada. In her e-mail, Power said that about 20 percent of the freed-up spectrum will be used by “public safety services”, while the rest will be allocated for commercial use after “future consultations”.
While there’s probably a fair bit of hedging going on—waiting to see what happens with the American switchover—it does appear that Canada is in poor shape to successfully effect a digital switchover in two-and-a-half years.
“Ultimately, there’s a political dimension to this, that they’ll wake up and there’ll be an ”˜uh-oh’, which might lead to a deferral of the conversion,” Morrison said. “Who’s going to pay the capital costs? That was always a problem, but especially now that access to capital is hurt by the economic downturn. So I’m a skeptic on 2011.”