As Congress debates moving the DTV transition to June, most people think there is only one DTV transition, the one currently scheduled for 2/17/09. But as the above quote from NCTA points out there are really two in our future. The first one being the over-the-air transition that gets all the press and which is mandated by law, the second being a continuing evolution in the CATV industry to all digital signals within their networks. Let me say up front that I have no faults with what the cable industry is doing with their technology, but the dearth of public information from both the industry and the FCC is very likely to cause a problem when the "second transition" happens later this year. Former Chairman Kennard has called the (first) DTV transition "a potential Hurricane Katrina-like moment". The second could be almost as bad if the public is not told about it in an effective way.
Today's Washington Post had the following Q&A about cable and DTV by Rob Pegoraro:
Q You wrote that the digital-TV transition has nothing to do with cable TV going from analog to digital, but my cable company seems to disagree. What's the real story with digital cable?
A Digital cable, in which TV programs are compressed and encoded as a stream of ones and zeroes before being sent over cable lines, isn't new. Cable operators have been adopting it not because of the over-the-air DTV transition -- remember, they don't use the regular TV airwaves -- but for the same reason that wireless-phone carriers ditched analog cellular: digital uses much less of their bandwidth.
But the movement of many popular basic-cable channels from analog to digital is a more recent development.
This represents a problem for viewers with older cable-ready TVs, who now must rent a digital cable box. Many digital sets include a quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) tuner that can receive unencrypted digital cable signals without a box, but these sets can have problems detecting available channels on a cable system's digital feed.
A second problem arises when cable companies suggest that their digital transition has been forced by the over-the-air DTV switch -- an argument as illogical as blaming digital migrations on the Redskins' late-season collapse. Herndon-based RCN, which provides service in the District, Montgomery County and Falls Church, has been the source of many such complaints from readers. RCN spokesman Michael Houghton said the company has "had relatively few issues of this type," considering the magnitude of its move to an all-digital system.
"We've cautioned all our members . . . to be very clear about not using the broadcast transition as a way to justify the migration of cable channels," wrote Brian Dietz, a vice president for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
Here's a quote from an NCTA-related website:
"If you are a cable customer, you may have to do little or nothing to enjoy your favorite programming after the switch to digital TV (DTV). Your cable provider will take care of the transition for you!" (Emphasis added)
Now what exactly is "your favorite programming", especially if you have an analog TV set connected directly to cable without a set top box? Most readers of this blog know what "must carry" stations are. But ask your neighbors who have cable/satellite/fiber if they really understand the difference about which of their basic tier signals are governed by the must carry rules and which are not, e.g. CNN, C-SPAN, MTV, Food Network etc.
FCC has dodged responsibility by issuing a Consumer Advisory entitled "DTV Transition Does Not Require Cable Systems to Switch to Digital" in an obscure location on both the FCC and dtv.gov websites:
- The digital (DTV) transition applies only to full-power TV broadcast stations. It refers to the switch from analog to digital broadcast television.
- The DTV transition does not require cable companies to switch their cable systems to digital.
- For voluntary business reasons, your cable company may decide to move some cable channels from its analog tier onto a digital tier, or may switch to all-digital service and stop providing any analog service. This is not required by the government. (sic)
- As long as your cable company offers any analog service, it must provide you with your local broadcast stations so you can watch them without a cable set-top box.
So FCC has denied all responsibility, which is strictly speaking correct. But then why did FCC send all those Letters of Inquiry to cable operators around Halloween?
There is some good news on yet another NCTA-related website, which has gotten little attention to date. The major cable operators will not switch basic tier channel to the digital tier during a 2 month "quiet period" :
Even with those efforts, the cable industry has been asked to consider taking additional steps to help smooth the DTV transition. In response to these requests, cable operators represented on the NCTA Board of Directors (who own and operate cable systems serving ninety percent of the nation’s cable subscribers) have committed to the following:
- Digital Migration “Quiet Period.” To minimize consumer confusion during the DTV transition, operators will delay the substitution of digital versions of existing analog channels from December 31, 2008, to March 1, 2009, except to the extent necessary to free up bandwidth to comply with the requirement to carry broadcast signals in both analog and digital formats or meet contractual carriage obligations.
- Analog Broadcast Basic Tier. Operators that offer dual carriage of broadcast signals would make access to the analog broadcast basic tier available under a promotional offer to new customers who subscribe just to that tier. This offer would be available beginning December 31, 2008, and would continue for at least 120 days after the proposed quiet period – through June 30, 2009. The service would be provided at the promotional price for at least one year after the customer subscribes.
- No Additional Charge for Equipment or Service. Recognizing that there is likely to be continuing consumer confusion even after the February 17, 2009 broadcaster DTV transition, operators would also provide the following additional assistance to all-analog cable households during and for at least 120 days after the proposed quiet period – through June 30, 2009 – to help them manage cable’s digital transition. If, during this period, an operator removes the analog version of a PEG or other channel from the broadcast basic or expanded basic tier and replaces it with a digital version of the channel on either of those tiers, the operator would make available to all-analog households, upon request, at least one free device that enables those households to view the channel. The device provided under this program would remain free for at least one year. There would also be no additional service charge for at least one year for the affected channel or, at the operator’s option, the broadcast basic or expanded basic tier where the digital version of the channel has been placed. Individual operators may choose to continue this program after June 30, 2009, or to initiate other similar programs after that date.
- Clear and Conspicuous Customer Notification of Any Channel Migration. Whenever operators cease transmitting analog PEG or cable programming services and begin offering those channels only in digital, they will provide clear and conspicuous notice to affected subscribers and franchising authorities not less than 30 days in advance. The notice would also inform subscribers that they have at least 60 days to avail themselves of the offers described above.
On point the cable industry is still evasive about: If a channel such as CNN is in the basic analog tier today, will it be viewable with a DTV receiver that has a 64-QAM input but no set top box? The answer apparently will vary from system to system and systems that will require set top boxes at a fee to watch former basic tier channels should prepare for major consumer backlash -- although they are well within their legal rights.
Indeed, the fact that we have no more convenient shorthand for talking about 64-QAM than its technojargon name probably indicates that industry hasn't been very interested in consumers connecting directly to cable without a set top box.
So ask your (non telecom policy wonk) neighbors with cable if they understand what is about to happen and see if they understand. Then visit a nursing home and see if the residents there understand that some of their favorite channels may disappear in a few months but that it is not FCC's fault.
For a specific example of the confusion that can result in this matter, here is an article from the 1/28/09 Washington Post on the changes by RCN in the Washington area. (Apparently RCN is not one of the companies on the NCTA board who have agreed to the voluntary "quiet period".)
Part of the article says,
"Television audiences across the country are getting ready for the switch to all-digital broadcasting scheduled for next month. But in the District, another TV transition is causing confusion for some cable customers.
Cable company RCN last week shut off analog channels in the Chevy Chase area, and it will do the same in parts of Northwest D.C. this week as it shifts to digital technology. The effort is part of an "analog crush," in which RCN is getting rid of analog signals to increase its channel offerings.
That means that customers used to plugging coaxial cable cords directly into a TV now will need a digital converter box for every TV set to get channels.But for some, RCN's move from analog to digital service couldn't have come at a worse time."