OTA HDTV Reception Q&A

Updates on the DTV transition and how to receive over-the-air digital television for free.

Location: Richmond, IL, United States

Hello there! I created this blog to share the information about over-the-air HDTV reception you have been wearily searching the Web or calling technical lines for, whether you have decided for less expensive means to get your favorite TV shows, or still adjusting from the over the air broadcast DTV transition that occurred on June 12, 2009. After working for a leading antenna manufacturer for almost 5 years, during which time I've shared my expertise with those who asked on the phone and by email at work, I decided to do the same in the Blogosphere! Confused about getting your local HD channels? Just click through the archives, some of the most useful information is in the early posts from 2005-06. If you want to get in touch with me with antenna related questions, just leave a comment anywhere on this site.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Perhaps you may have heard something about broadcast TV becoming fully digital. Currently, both the current analog (NTSC) TV and DTV (ATSC, which delivers HD programming) are being broadcast on two separate off-air channels. The TV industry is hoping that the general public will embrace HDTV and DTV broadcasts to the point where the broadcasters will shut down and obsolete the analog broadcasts.

The issue of when to shut down analog broadcasts are probably going to be debated and maybe voted upon later this month (October 2005, when I am writing this). This will be a bill that is, as I write this, being discussed and drafted by the US Congressional House Commerce and Energy Committee. Hopefully in the next few days a DTV bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives to be debated and voted upon en route to make a "hard date" for ending analog TV broadcasting official. For all the rest of the details in passing a Congressional bill, there is a catchy bit that explains it on a Schoolhouse Rock DVD. There is also a similar bill being drafted in the US Senate Commerce Committee that may be debated this month as well, under the working title "Digital Transistion and Public Safety Act of 2005".

Now what that hard date will be has been the subject of debate well before this bill is being drafted. Originally the plan was to turn the signals off when 85% of the households in a market have a digital-ready TV or tuner. That would be a tough count, especially since the issue is off-air broadcasts, and 70% of households get their local channels through cable, which will still provide local channels when the analog off-air broadcasts end; the cable company would just need to modulate the digital channels to analog.

The other issue is what the FCC is planning in the post 9-11-01 era. Currently, broadcast television is available on channels 2-69 (VHF 2-13 from 54-216 MHz, and UHF 14-69 from 470-806 MHz). The plan for off-air broadcasts is that after analog broadcasting ends, and broadcast TV becomes fully digital, channels 52-69 will be eliminated to free up spectrum from 700-800 MHz. While some wireless providers will be using this new allocation for new technologies, including broadcast DTV on mobile phones, the real purpose of the new spectrum will be to provide a "public safety" band that will be used for instant communication to first responders, like police, fire, military, and EMTs, or a ready passerby who just happens to be in the area and hears the alert, in the event of an emergency.

There are currently off-air analog and DTV broadcasts available on channels 52-69 in many US markets, so the FCC is enforcing a plan for all US broadcast stations to select a final frequency assignment from channels 2-51 for broadcasting DTV exclusively. The plan is based on three rounds of final channel election for each full-power television station. After each round the FCC will check for any interference and conflict issues, send alerts to the stations in question, and request a resolution of conflict. Round one ended in February with the majority of stations selecting their final channel, round two is currently in progress, and the final round is scheduled for next February/March, with a final approved assignment to hopefully become resolved and public in August 2006.

So now back to the hard date issue. One of the strongest voices in Congress pushing support for a hard date, and one as soon as possible, is US Senator John McCain of Arizona. Senator McCain wants the 700-800 MHz spectrum freed up an a new effective first responder system in place quickly, and according to reports he has vocally criticized that a lack of such an effective system may have consequently resulted in lost lives during the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01, and more recently from Hurricane Katrina.

Recent events have caused a little talk of of a January 1, 2007 hard shut-off date for analog broadcasting, but in the eyes of most lawmakers, this date is unrealistic, so the House Committee bill is reportably mentioning a hard analog shut-off date of January 1, 2009. The Senate Commitee draft currently requests an April 7, 2009 shut-off date for analog TV broadcasts.

There is also some buzz in Congress that the hard date should be July 2009. Well, if I had a say in Congress, I am for a hard date, but only if that date is July 2009 instead of January 2009. Here are my reasons for waiting it out until after January 2009.

1) More time for the public to not only embrace DTV, but also afford it. For those 10 million or so households who receive off-air broadcasts, only a small percentage right now are DTV ready. In time digital TVs will come down in price, and hopefully consumers will release they do not need an HDTV set to get clear off-air digital broadcasts. They can instead purchase a special set-top-box, about the size of a DVD player, and hook that box like a DVD player to their existing analog TV sets. As a result, the consumer will not lose their off-air broadcasts when analog broadcasting ends, because their analog NTSC tuners will not be receiving anything over-the-air, just their DTV boxes and HD sets. Congress would also be considering a plan to subsidize such DTV tuner boxes to low-income households and prepare them for an analog shutdown. However, while electronics manufacturers have recently demonstrated boxes that could retail for around $50 apiece, or maybe less, there remains the issue of planning to manufacture the boxes to meet the demand on time. To wait until July 2009 would give these manufacturers time to not only meet the demand, but possible also tweak a design to make the costs of the boxes even lower, which would certainly save big money on the Congressional budget.

2) Americans generally watch less broadcast television in July than January. So, there would be less to miss on TV just in case a household true to off-air broadcasting doesn't get their analog TVs converted in time, or they do, but they find out that their antenna is suddenly not getting all their now fully digitized signals. Remember earlier I mentioned that the broadcasters are now required to pick a final DTV channel from 2-51, which means it is likely in most markets that a few broadcast channels will be electing a final DTV channel different than what is being used now for DTV broadcasting. Well suppose on this new channel its coverage is spotty in a certain neighborhood and the customer suddenly needs a different antenna setup to receive the free off-air digital broadcast consistently that they may have once had?

At least in July the customer wouldn't miss much on the air with the exception of a midseason baseball game, the news (both of which the customer could hear on radio until the antenna situation is straightened out), NASCAR, and the only significant championship sporting event of the time, Wimbledon tennis. As far as the popular broadcast series go, they are in reruns with no return until September, assuming the show was picked up for another season. Also, July 1st, 2009, would fall on a Wednesday, so the consumer could fix the antenna before the 4th of July weekend when the aforementioned sporting events would take place.

Now for the April 7, 2009 date that the Senate Committee is looking at . . . , well, I have mixed emotions on that. That day looks to be a Tuesday, and the day AFTER the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four championship game. It would also be a time when the hit broadcast network shows may be in a little spring hiatus before the season finale episodes, but I don't know . . .

What would the consumer miss January 1st? A lot -- the college football bowls, the Rose Bowl Parade (two events HD was made for), and if the antenna situation isn't readjusted in time, the next new episode of a favorite series returning from the holiday break. And this situation leads me to . . .

3) The weather!!! I mean, suppose you were an off-air only household and found out you had to readjust your antenna situation to get back a couple major off-air channels you might have lost in the DTV channel shift, and the antennas were on the roof outside because that is where you catch the most off-air signal. And, you lived in a part of the country where it is snowy with 40-below wind chills in January. Are you REALLY that willing to climb on an icy roof to fix the antenna just to watch the Rose Bowl? At least in July you would just have rain to contend with, and it would be warmer. Perhaps Congress should realize this situation when considering the safety of the American public.

4) In case a few issues and hiccups arise when analog broadcasting ends, at least Congress would be in session just before the 4th of July to deal with them, and NOT be just coming back from the holiday break. Plus in January 2009, Congress would just be coming into session with new legislation after the November 2008 Presidential election.

So if indeed the House does begin debating the DTV bill in the next couple weeks, somebody will bring these issues to the floor so that the bill would be properly amended and approved to serve the American public's best interests. If you are reading this in October, it probably wouldn't hurt to write or call your Congressional representative to have him/her prepared to debate on how to resolve and finalize the DTV transition.

WHEW -- Did I get a lot out this time out, but I was away and busy over the last couple weeks. If you've just come across this and want to know more about the DTV frequency assignments, feel free to browse my archives or visit the "Antenna Guide" at http://www.checkhd.com/, and note the "frequency assignment" column on the right, where the DTV broadcasts actually are. If that assignment is 52 or higher, you will expect a switch of that assignment when the analog broadcasts end, if you getting that DTV channel over the air right now. Thanks as always for reading this, I have gotten a couple nice comments from causal blog readers so far, and I do appreciate it!