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'DTA’ Means 100-plus more linear HD Channels

Here’s a new one from the Department of Three-Letter Acronyms: “DTA.”

DTA (as you’ve read in Todd Spangler’s reporting in these pages) stands for Digital Terminal Adapter (or “digital-to-analog”). A digital terminal adapter is a cable-specific thing. It’s a small, low-cost gizmo — not unlike the small, low-cost gizmos being built for the upcoming broadcast digital transition.

It attaches to the back of every analog TV, or any TV not already connected to a cable set-top box — not unlike those built for the broadcast digital transition.

Because the average U.S. household contains at least a couple analog TVs, DTAs need to be inexpensive. One is needed for every TV that wants to keep being a TV. The DTA price tag for cable operators is in the $30 to $50 range — not unlike the price tag for the adapters made for the broadcast industry’s digital transition.

Sufficiently confused? Here’s what’s going on: An unfortunately-timed intersection of one industry’s necessity and another’s requirement. The competitive necessity is cable shelf space, by way of analog spectrum reclamation. The regulatory requirement is the broadcast transition.

The DTA work is primarily emanating from Comcast. It’s a way to free up bandwidth for more HD channels, ethnic programming, and the channel-bonding magic that comes out of DOCSIS 3.0. At the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo last month in Philadelphia, Comcast president Steve Burke underscored the urgency of analog reclamation this way: “We’ll get started in earnest this fall, and get it done over the next 18 months.”

How much more space does analog reclamation yield, in HD terms? Say they take half of it back. That’s roughly 250 MHz, located between 50 MHz (the top of the reverse band) and 550 MHz (the bottom of the digital band). That’s enough room for 82 to 125 more linear HD channels (depending on whether you stuff two or three streams per channel), or 400 linear SD channels. It’s a roomy approach.

For Comcast, the DTA rollout is phase two of a three-phase plan, which started with the digital simulcast. That’s when operators made all analog channels available on the digital tier, as well as the analog tier. These days, some channels are available in analog, standard-definition digital, and high-definition digital. The shelf is crowded. Something needs to go, Comcast reasons — and the world isn’t going analog.

Meanwhile, DirecTV flaunts its 100 channels of HD. “This isn’t a place we want to be,” competitively, Burke noted. “The country’s digital transition is this February. It will be on people’s minds. People will be assuming the world goes digital, and now’s the time.”

And so enters the three-letter acronym known as “DTA” into the big doings of the next year or so.

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