Too late. Just go ahead with it.

Barack Obama wants to wait on the DTV shift currently scheduled for 17 February. On the grounds that it’ll be a mess, this is a good idea. But nothing can make it a better idea. It’s not that the train has left the station. It’s that the new OTA (over the air) Oz is mostly built-out and it’s going to fail. Not totally, but in enough ways to bring huge piles of opprobrium down on the FCC, which has been rationalizing this thing for years.

I explain why in What happens when TV’s mainframe era ends next February?. Most VHF stations moving to UHF will have sharply reduced coverage. The converter shortage is just a red herring. The real problem is signals that won’t be there.

Most cable customers won’t be affected. But even cable offerings are based on over-the-air coverage assumptions. Those may stay the same, but the facts of coverage will not. In most cases coverage will shrink.

FCC maps (more here and here) paint an optimistic picture. But they are based on assumptions that are also overly optimistic, to say the least. Wilimington, NC was chosen as a demonstration market. Bad idea. One of the biggest stations there, WECT, suffers huge losses of coverage.

Anyway, it’s gonna be FUBAR in any case.

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  1. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    I’ve definitely noticed improvements in signal strength in Boston with my computer-based DTV tuner, with the same internal antenna, over the 3+ years I’ve used it in East Watertown. I don’t have a good baseline reference, though, since I went from cable in a reception hole at home in high school, to no TV in college, directly to DTV. My main goal was to get one of the last Mac-compatible DTV tuners that was grandfathered in without broadcast flag support.

    I technically pay for cable TV, but I have no device that can display the signal; it’s a way to inexplicably make my internet cheaper.

    At this point, it seems best to just go ahead, simply because of all of the investment in setting a “hard date”. They’d have to republish so much of the information, not to mention somehow getting rid of all instances of old information. I can’t imagine Congress being particularly speedy in getting more funding into the coupon program either.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar


    There is no doubt that pictures will be much better (hey, they’ll be digital, and hi-res) for people who get a strong signal. In Watertown you’re within line-of-sight for the signals coming from the Needham tower from which all the Boston DTV stations radiate. My daughter and son-in-law get great DTV reception with just a little 5″ wire sticking out of the back of their TV flat-screen in Baltimore. But they’re close to the transmitters too.

    The problem will be in outlying areas like the Cape & Islands, or in places where terrain shadowing cuts signals off cold. There will be many places in central Mass and southern New Hampshire that used to get WGBH on Channel 2, and will get nothing from the station’s new DTV signal on UHF. Translators can make up for this, but most stations won’t bother because most people watch on cable anyway.

    By the way, your DTV picture will probably be much better than your cable picture, because it needs to be compressed less. Have you noticed that yet?

  3. Flip’s avatar

    Here in the bay area, I can really only pick up the PBS and religious broadcasts in HD. For some reason I can’t get a signal from all the broadcast networks that are on cable. Even the ones who have broadcast towers only a few miles away.

  4. Mary Lu’s avatar

    Doc… and when you thought the whole DTV fiasco was FUBAR, check out the lates news from the boys and girls at the FCC.

    FCC unanimously approves white space use

    Funny you actually did this story today… as today we installed a new converter box at Dr. Doug’s Mom’s house, as she was growing nearly hysterical about not being able to see “her shows” once digital took over. (She’s one of the rare people on earth who’s got a straight line shot from the house in Covina to Mt. Wilson, broadcast central in LA.)

    The entire situation of getting it installed and then tweeked so she could fumble thru’ the station line up is best described as “Adventures in Converter Box Hell.” Simple converter boxes, even like the simple to operate Magnavox we picked up, make it nearly impossible for people without a college degree to set it up.

    I’ve got more to say… but one more thing for the moment… You can not use your converter box and your VCR to record two shows at once, like she has done in the past…. and this may lead us to buying her cable with the DVR, if we can teach her to operate it!

    Hugs… call me next time you’re near my house… and not flying over it landing at LAX!

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Flip, I’m curious to know about which stations you’re getting, exactly. Not just which networks. Also where you live and how you’re picking up the signals. (Are you using an antenna? What kind? Is it directional? Where is it pointed?)

    Most San Francisco stations have moved to the Mt. Sutro tower for DTV transmission. Here’s a graphic that shows the antenna layout on the tower. KDTV (14 in analog, 51 in digital) and KSTS (48 in analog, 49 in in digital ) are on Mt. Allison, while KICU (36 in analog, 52-then-36 in digital) and KTEH (54 in analog, 50 in digital) are on Monument Peak. Those are two knobs atop the ridge above Fremont and Milpitas that also has Monument Peak. All have much better line-of-sight to much of the Peninsula and South Bay than does Mt. Sutro, and are far higher as well. Could be you’re receiving those, and not Mt. Sutro at all.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mary Lu, let’s try to visit on one of my sojourns to Santa Barbara. We’ll be back for much of the summer.

    Meanwhile, interesting about the converter box and your Mom. I suspect in the long run people are all just better off junking their analog TVs and going with new digital ones. If she has line-of-sight to Mt. Wilson, she should get a pile of stations. Nearly all the stations from the whole of SoCal outside of San Diego are moving there, including stations from Riverside, Ventura and Anaheim. In some cases, such as Ventura, they are giving up on nearly all coverage in their home county. Looky here for the specifics. They’re doing it, I’m sure, to become an L.A. station that has to keep cable coverage in their home territory, where cable penetration is approximately 100% anyway, because there’s little line-of-sight to Wilson from the county in any case. If you want L.A. TV, you gotta have cable. Or satellite, although the rules for that one are goofy. The satellite must-carry equivalents are from Mars. (We have no local PBS on Dish, for example, just the national feed — and in low-def, as with *all* the local affiliates.)

    Anyway, yeah, fubar.

  7. Nicolas Ward’s avatar


    I pretty much only catch cable in hotel rooms when business-traveling; I don’t watch the cable hookup to my apartment, it just comes with the internet package, so I don’t compare it to the quality I get with ATSC. The image looks really good even just windowed on my monitor.

    I realize I’m pretty skewed, in that almost everyone I know is either a TV-abstainer or a cable user; in particular, the people I’d be most concerned about (my grandparents) have cable through their respective assisted living facilities.

    A regular temptation of early adoption, I suppose, is to accept the loss of backwards compatibility if there’s some benefit (in this case using the spectrum for something else), because losing it generally doesn’t affect you if you’ve already made the jump to the new system. I wonder if it would be a more robust solution for a coupon program to be applicable to purchasing a DTV (with exchange of old TV), instead of having to deal with a converter box?

    If I ever moved further out, I’d probably bring my EyeTV 500 with me and make the realtor let me test the signal strength.

  8. Charles Roth’s avatar

    I am absolutely delighted at the prospect of LESS reception of DTV. I cannot think of another single such “problem” that would have as WONDERFUL an impact on the average child. The less TV, the better.

    We’ve lived without network or cable (TV) for 7 years. (I temporarily rigged up an outdoor antenna for the election, then promptly took it down.) Internet access, of course, we’ve always had. ( runs out of a server in my basement.) My daughter is the most advanced reader in her class, the most advanced math student in her class, and won her county-wide age-group freestyle swimming competition. Coincidence? I think not.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar


    I agree. Our kid is a great reader, and has minimal TV exposure.

    As I said here, I expect the failure of OTA DTV to accellerate the end of TV As We Know It. Which is, in most cases, as Fred Allen so perfectly put it, “chewing gum for the eyes.”

  10. Charles Roth’s avatar

    Chuckle. Some sources say Frank Lloyd Wright, but oh, yes.

  11. Jim Thompson’s avatar

    Hawaii turned off analog TV yesterday (Thursday). I guess the FCC is ‘studying’ what happens *in isolation*.

    Honestly, the stations here were forced to upgrade to DTV, and have done so largely in the last month.

    I now have a reason to build a MythTV box, slot a couple HDTV tuner cards into it, and call Time Warner to turn the cable TV *off*.

    So in at least one household, the switch is the reason for the loss of one cable TV customer.

  12. Bruce Fryer’s avatar

    We’ve lost CBS and ABC here in Park City. They’re on Lewis Peak which worked fine for UHF repeaters but not powerful enough for DTV like you pointed out in an earlier article. I even put an amplifier on the antennae to no avail.

    Fox, NBC and PBS chose to use a repeater in town on Quarry Mountain. They come in just fine.

    There are going to be a whole lot of ticked of people.

  13. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Take a look at my comment at Phil Windley’s post here. Follow the links in the second paragraph. They lead to FCC maps that show changed and lost coverage for various channels.

    Check this too. It’s all the facilities within 20km of Park City. They’re all translators. I suspect that the stations will go digital with their main tansmitters, then put in new DTV translators out where they currently have analog ones — or wait to see who squawks and put translators first in those places, and let the non-squawkers slide (because they’re on cable or satellite in any case).

    Meanwhile, go here. That’s a search at for TV transmitter facilities within 10km of Stansbury Park, which gets us just those atop Farnsworth Peak in the Oquirrh Mountains, which is an interesting study in itself, and why I point there to the whole search and not just to the peak itself. Lots of TV history there.

    Go to the stations that have channels like 38DT, which is the new channel for KSL-TV, soon to be the former Channel 5. Or to 40DT, the new home for the former Channel 4. Look at the transmission patterns. They are full wattage only at their maxima. All the patterns are bug splats.

    Lots of digital systems are like this. Some aren’t. Those in Boston and San Francisco are not. Most in Los Angeles are.

    In any case, this is one more factor that will deny reception so some viewers, I am sure.

    Much more digging to do here, for the curious.

  14. Geoffrey Lee’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    I agree with your assertion about the loss of television coverage with the transition to ATSC signals.

    In the analogue days I could receive the four UHF stations of the seven Buffalo stations; the three VHF stations were unreceiveable. With digital, the three UHF stations are now receivable and two of the UHF stations are great with their omnidirectional signals. Regretfully someone at the FCC decided that the last two had to have highly shaped signals – citing to the stations that it may interfere with some Canadian signals. Using Canadian contacts, they say nothing in Canada is close to the frequencies they presently use. This may be a ruse used by some stations in Border Areas.

    On the up side I can also receive all eleven Toronto Area stations, but only ten are on DTV so far. So with analogue and digital, I am receiving 21 stations; OK I guess.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Where are you?

    I see here that some of the main Buffalo TV stations (WGRZ, WKBW, WNGS, WIVB) are all located far southeast of town. They are all VHF, and make me suspect you’re to the north. I also see their new DTV signals come from the same locations, but are non-directional. Other stations — WUTV, WNED, WNLO, WNYO — are all located northwest of town, in Grand Island, Most of those have highly directional signals, toward Buffalo. You can see those directional patterns and locations by exploring at that last link. I presume there are international requirements imposed on the second group of stations that are not on the first. I also expect that most of the former VHF stations located far southeast of town will have trouble getting into town with their new UHF signals. The one exception will be WNGS, which will come back on Channel 7 in digital form.

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