Little Guys Fear Fall From 'DTV Cliff'

Out in the boonies, Glen Faulkner is worried about getting the blues. Faulkner manages MTC Cable in Margaretville, N.Y. Among the operating issues over which he loses sleep is a little-discussed phenomenon of the digital transition: the so-called digital cliff.

He fears that when the nation's conversion to digital television broadcasting is complete, his customers will see nothing but a blue screen where popular broadcast signals used to be.

The way cable engineers explain it, digital TV's pristine broadcast signal "doesn't degrade gracefully," like its analog predecessor.

No snow, just blue

A television's analog signal trails off, becoming snowy toward the edge of the grade-B contour. It will eventually be weak enough to become unwatchable.

But in the digital realm, once the signal gets to the point that the decoder on the receiver's end can't find enough bits, the screen just goes blue.

The problem is worse with UHF signals, those on channels 14 or higher. Those signals don't propagate well, engineers said. Such broadcasters will need antennas and translators at even higher power, and will need to focus their signals.

And like analog signals, some digital transmissions are susceptible to interference from airplanes or other sources. That's why cable operators and others often opt to get their broadcast feed via fiber optics.

The distance the signal will travel varies according to such factors as geography, the strength of the broadcast signal and the height of the broadcast transmitter.

Once digital broadcasters go full power, engineers said, reception by both consumers and outlying cable operators will become a problem.

"The modulation the broadcasters picked is not very good" for distant receivers, said one engineer. "You really need a 'super receiver,' and I don't know if anyone manufactures such a thing."

Pesky details

Hence the agita felt by Faulkner and other small cable operators. Right now, the Federal Communications Commission appears to be more focused on the technical aspects of the DTV transition than on its operational details.

An official with the FCC's digital-TV task force said that regulators will eventually start a proceeding on digital translators and other technologies needed to assure universal broadcast coverage.

It doesn't appear to be a priority at present. As of April 2, only 16% of the nation's broadcasters have commenced digital broadcasting, for a total of 271 commercial and public broadcasting stations.

But 850 more stations requested extensions to the 2006 deadline for moving to an all-digital platform, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

While regulators and the big media companies are focused on the big-picture issues, small companies and some local governments are trying to figure out how to get the ear of the decision-makers so they can survive what they perceive to be a digital steamroller.

"Grade C [contours] are a real problem. Analog is easier to amplify. It's not a perfect signal, but it's existent," said Chris Cinnamon, an attorney who advises small operators.

Grade C contours are the regions that radiate away from a broadcast site, from which 50% or fewer of locations can receive a "satisfactory" broadcast signal 90% of the time, according to FCC definitions.

Beyond the curve

Faulkner's company is one of those beyond the Grade B contour. His community is northwest of New York City and southwest of Albany. His community is 20 to 30 miles away from Binghamton, N.Y. and assigned to that television market. But it's also on the fringe of New York City.

MTC Cable runs the risk of losing Binghamton's stations — CBS affiliate WBNG; Fox station WICZ; WIVT, the ABC affiliate; and PBS outlet WSKG — when they go full-power digital.

Those stations have yet to make such a move, and conversion may be one or two years down the road, Faulkner has been told.

Retaining New York's WNBC (NBC), WNYW (Fox) and WABC (ABC) is "a real long-shot," he added. (New York's digital transition has been delayed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which destroyed TV-transmission facilities on the World Trade Center.)

Many Manhattanites keep their second homes in Margaretville, in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley region. So the loss of the big city stations could send some of his 1,600 customers fleeing.

In 25% of its market, MTC Cable competes with the bigger, better-funded Time Warner Cable.

Faulkner said his company, which started out as a telephone cooperative, has managed to remain competitive despite its small size. It still sells telephone service and, on the cable side, invested in an upgrade to an 870-Megahertz plant.

"But we don't have much control over the digital conversion," Faulkner said. "If we lose broadcasters, we lose competitive edge."

The system would also likely lose some customers to direct-broadcast satellite providers, because that medium at least can offer consumers local stations from New York City, if not Binghamton, Faulkner added.

Tennessee tale

The situation may be even more grave for consumers in Pickwick Dam, Tenn.

DBS will not even be an option for Pickwick consumers who want local broadcast signals, according to Robert Campbell Jr. He and his father own Pickwick Cablevision, which serves 900 customers in the tiny community on the Tennessee River "where Tennessee and Alabama meet," he said.

Sixty percent of the customers are locals, but 40% are vacationers. "We serve mobiles to mansions," he quipped.

It's hard enough to receive analog broadcasts in the lake resort located about 110 miles east of Memphis, he said. The city sits 40 to 50 miles east of the grade B contour of the stations in that DMA.

The operator currently carries WREG, the CBS affiliate; NBC's WMC; PBS's WKNO and an independent broadcaster, WHBQ.

The cable operator experienced a great deal of transmission noise on two of the channels, so it invested in equipment so the analog signals would be watchable "at least 90% of the time," Campbell said.

The Memphis broadcasters have gone digital, but are not up to full power. Campbell said he's spoken with broadcast engineers and was told that even at full power, the broadcasters anticipate reaching only 98% of the territory within the Grade B contour.

"I knew when he said Grade B, I was in trouble," he said. "I currently have a UHF antenna pointed in their direction, but I can't get anything.

"Availability of Memphis broadcast stations is one of my selling points … I have 900 people depending on me," he added, noting that individual homeowners with or without digital television receivers in their homes will be unable to get any of the stations off-air, either.

Prayer might help

With respect to the government-promoted digital transition, Campbell added: "Like anyone else, I don't like it. My only hope is that when [the broadcasters] go full power, somehow it will be offered to me. We do the best we can and pray it will all work out."

He's resigned as to how things will work out.

"We're just a small system. I don't worry about it until we get there, and just hope for better technology," he said.

Others say digital reception problems can't just wait for the government to get around to them. Steve Taylor, headend engineer and technical supervisor for AllWest/Utah Inc., a bundled services supplier in Kamas, Utah, is already fretting about his options.

He's contacted Summit County, home to the local broadcast stations, to see if they can work on a solution.

Like many of the remote cable operators that will be affected, AllWest currently gets its broadcast signals via translators, which pick up and boost the analog signal along to outlying areas.

The translators serving AllWest are owned and maintained by the county. If AllWest is to continue to rely on those translators, said Taylor, they must be upgraded.

The translators

But there's the rub. Most local governments are cash-strapped for basic services like police protection and fire suppression. That makes it a hard sell to convince elected officials to carve out funds so mountain dwellers can watch Friends
or The Simpsons.
"Welcome to the great debate. Do we have the money? We've been discussing it among other service providers," said Derrick Radke, director of the engineer's office in Summit County, home to Salt Lake City.

County officials estimate that the cost to upgrade their translators, just to service the primary Salt Lake city televison market with digital broadcast signals would be $350,000, plus another $100,000 for secondary sites.

Salt Lake City broadcasters have been approached. In informal talks, county officials have tried to convince them to participate financially in the translator upgrade. That way, no single participant will bear the cost, Radke said.

Because of the recent Winter Olympics, broadcasters in the city were among some of the first to adopt digital technology. TV stations collaborated to build a joint production facility, local officials said.

"But if the broadcasters come back and say 'We're concentrating on the Wasatch [Mountain] front range,' the county will have to decide if it is to stay in the free, over-the-air television business," the county engineer said. "There are a lot of rural residents who don't want cable or satellite. We don't know how the cable guys are even going to get it, and we're only two-and-a-half years away."

Radke's words chill the heart of businessmen like Taylor. His system is 45 miles east of Salt Lake City, serving 1,450 customers over 145 linear miles of plant.

"If the broadcasters go full-power digital, I haven't been directed to any specific equipment that will resolve the problem," he said.

But other observers of the digital transition scoff at the current anxiety felt by outlying media consumers.

"The digital conversion has been a fundamental failure so far," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "We have many more mountains to climb before we get to this cliff."

The full digital conversion won't occur until 85% of broadcasters can go full-power onto the platform. Consumers must also adapt to the technology by replacing their television sets, he noted.

The cliff issue "will arise after I retire," Cooper predicted.

But to many, it's already a sticky issue — particularly with respect to expense. Should states pick up the tab to keep broadcast signals universal? Should a federal agency, the broadcasters or rural cable operators do so?

MTC Cable's Faulkner has a suggestion: "There's got to be a multitude of operators that are in the same fix. It may be that the only option is leasing dark fiber from some dark fiber pool."

Faulkner sounds a little miffed at being among the last to know how this digital dilemma would be resolved. For him, it would have been better to let the market decide whether the DTV transition was good for the television business.

Instead, the FCC is promoting the transition through rules that tend to overlook small and midsized businesses and their profit margins, he said.

Faulkner is a member of the American Cable Association, the trade group for small cable operators. The ACA is spearheading the effort to get out information about the digital cliff.

"I hope the ACA can lobby a solution," Faulkner said. "We don't have many options right now, except to shell out a huge amount of capital."