|Free HDTV with an antenna
||[Jan. 8th, 2009|01:55 pm]
|||||DI.fm Future Synthpop||]|
One of the things that has fascinated me for a while, is the possibility of getting free over-the-air HDTV with a television antenna. If I owned my own house, that would be one of the things I would want to do. I am a big fan of spending a little more money up front, to make things become free (or substantially reduced in price) over time. For the same reason, I would love to get solar panels, and a charger hookup in the garage for a hybrid car, eventually.
In addition to being free, there's unique things you can get on TV with an antenna. There's a number of small obscure TV stations that aren't carried by the cable or satellite companies. There's also the concept of subchannels: just like HD Radio, each HDTV channel is made up of multiple subchannels that can all have different programming. In my experience, cable companies only carry a few of the more popular subchannels (PBS television stations are especially good), while satellite companies don't carry any of them at all.
I live in Castro Valley, and I'm literally in a valley as well. So, this location isn't a good choice for an antenna. A good clear line-of-sight, preferably to the horizon, is needed in order to pick up a good signal. I'm blocked in all around. Even KCBS radio, a local station that's so strong that I once picked them up in Phoenix, drops out nearby here. However, if I lived on a hill, like some beautiful houses I've had the privilege of visiting recently, an antenna would work great.
What direction to point the antenna? There's a well-known website that will tell you: antennaweb.org. In the Bay Area, the decision is easy: a substantial number of stations broadcast from a single location, Sutro Tower in San Francisco. Point the antenna at Sutro and you're good to go.
Another, more obscure, website is TV Fool. This website has a wonderful feature, in that it will plot your elevation and show you the terrain between you and the TV transmitter. You can see visually how clear your line-of-sight would be, and predict your signal quality. You can put in an address and get a list of channels in your area. It's fascinating to put in different addresses and see how things are different in various neighborhoods.
There's a lot of good advice about TV antenna installation online. A lot of it seems anachronistic to read, as the last time people seriously thought about TV antennas was in the 1970's, before cable and satellite became popular. However, with the additional choices offered by HDTV, and the general desire to save money these days, I predict TV antennas will make a slight comeback. It's important to point out that you don't need a new antenna to receive HDTV, if you already have a working analog TV antenna. The physics of the radio frequencies haven't changed, so existing antenna hookups should continue to work just fine.
With HDTV, as with all digital transmissions, the signal level is hit-or-miss: it doesn't fade out like an analog signal does. It's a wall. You either have a perfect signal, or you have a black screen. This makes it easier to get a watchable HDTV picture, than with analog. The only difference is the number of channels that you are able to receive. The RabbitEars website has a listing of the most prominent channels in each geographic area, to use as a goal when trying to see how many channels you can get, and one of the more interesting things is that you can click through to see a listing of all the subchannels that are available on each channel.
HDTV is also more efficient, at fitting into its assigned channel, than analog TV. With just a few exceptions, each analog TV station have at least one unused channel of "dead air" between it and another station. So, they must be at least 2 numbers apart (the exceptions are 4/5, 6/7, 13/14). HDTV stations don't have this restriction, and can be packed in right next to each other. This is the real reason the government wants HDTV: so that it can pack stations in more efficiently, thus freeing up many higher UHF frequencies to be sold off to raise money. It makes sense for the government to sell off the upper part of the UHF band, as public interest has shifted: people aren't as interested in UHF stations these days, instead, people want more bandwidth for all the cool new features on digital cellphones, and more wireless Internet access.
UHF has been nibbled away at for decades: in the 1960's, the government hugely overestimated the public's demand for UHF stations, and created channels 14-83. The higher channels have always remained somewhat empty, I recall. When analog cellphones were created in the 1980's, channels 70-83 were carved off to make room for analog cellphones (I remember being able to eavesdrop on analog conversations in the 1990's by using an old black-and-white TV that could still go up to channel 83). These days, channels 52-69 are being similarly carved off, to create a new generation of useful services.
I'm also hoping that some lower channels will be carved off, channels 5-6 to be exact, as these channels have the unique property of being right next to the existing FM radio band! Imagine being able to turn your radio down to 76.1, not just 87.9, and all the new FM channels that would create in between. Unlike UHF television, the FM band is currently completely packed now, and has been for decades. There's a great demand for new FM stations for people to listen to, especially with all the great new Internet radio stations looking to expand to an offline audience. The good news is that the FCC is starting to pay attention to this idea. These "new" radio frequencies are already used in Japan, home of many companies that make radios, and in fact many good portable radios already have the capability to receive these frequencies (look for an "international" setting, on a very small switch somewhere). This would nearly double the size of the existing FM band, and if strict ownership limits are enforced once again (as they were before the 1990's corporate consolidations), many more different voices will be on the air and radio will once again be interesting to listen to.
There's a darker side to these HDTV plans, though. Making room for HDTV, and reorganizing the frequencies in this way, will require the shutdown of analog TV broadcasting. Right now, most of the HDTV stations coexist nicely with their corresponding analog stations. Unfortunately, this won't be the case for long. On February 17, the government will shut down all analog TV stations! Hard to believe, but it's true. I've predicted for months that this will turn into a public relations disaster. I would guess that one of the easiest ways to lose political power in the USA would be to take Joe Sixpack's TV away! Especially now, with so many people out of work, having trouble affording cable or satellite, and being stuck at home watching TV.
I've predicted for months now that the analog shutoff would get pushed back, or canceled altogether. I'm standing by my prediction of a public relations disaster come February 17, if this date isn't changed. Just today, I saw a news article that confirmed a guess that I had made: that Obama would ask for this date to be postponed.
I predict an executive order, if Congress fails to act, to defer this day of reckoning for analog TV. While HDTV is definitely the correct long-term solution, it should take place gradually. If it were up to me, it would happen over the course of at least 10 years, as existing analog TV sets wear out and are replaced over time. As HDTV promises a compelling reason for people to upgrade (the improved picture and additional choice of subchannels), people will naturally migrate to HDTV over time, as their economic situations allow. I believe that the government should not force people to go to HDTV against their will, by cutting off the analog stations cold turkey.
The government is trying a program to help people buy converter boxes for analog TV sets, but the government coupons don't fully cover the cost of buying the boxes, and they have ran out of coupons! It's also difficult to find converter boxes in stores, as they are somewhat of an obscure item.
And, with the subdued economy these days, there isn't quite the rush to build out the new cellphone and Internet services that would replace the old UHF channels, so I predict the corporations that bought those old UHF frequencies will be amenable to the idea of not being able to make use of their frequencies for several years to come... especially if there's also a corresponding delay in the payment deadlines to the government for their purchase of those frequencies!
So, regarding HDTV, the next few months will literally be interesting to watch.