Transition to digital TV broadcasts — how Canadians should prepare

The transition in the U.S. from analog to digital TV broadcasts – slated for June this year – could affect many Canadians as well, industry insiders say.

That’s because a sizeable chunk of our population resides near the U.S.-Canadian border and accesses programs from American TV stations.

So it’s important that Canadians know what the move involves and how to prepare, even though our own transition date is still more than two years away (August 31, 2011).

From the consumer’s perspective, the “transition” issue centres around the digital television adapter – also dubbed the digital television (DTV) converter – and whether or not to buy one.

The DTV converter receives a digital television transmission via an antenna and converts it into a signal that can be displayed on an analog TV set.

Will you be affected?

The answer is “yes” only if you mainly watch over-the-air broadcasts and don’t have a digital TV.

This means the following groups don’t really need a converter:

  • Satellite or cable service subscribers
  • Owners of digital TV sets

Only a small minority of Canadians don’t belong to either of the two above groups.

These folk have three options to prepare for when the transition happens: purchase a TV with a digital tuner; subscribe to a satellite/cable service; or buy a DTV converter.

Where do you get a DTV converter?

One well-known Canadian electronics retailer selling converters is The Source By Circuit City.

The Source partnered with Michley Electronics Inc. to bring the Tivax STB/T8 DTV converter into its chain of stores.

The product – which meets Industry Canada requirements – can be ordered for $89.99 at The Source’s online store.

Set up is easy – it involves undoing the cable that goes from your antenna to your TV and attaching it to the converter. Then you attach cables from the converter to your television … and you’re in business.

Once attached, the converter uses its auto scan feature to automatically find and store in its memory the digital TV stations you can receive.

According to The Source Web site, the digital signal’s quality is similar what you experience when watching a DVD.

With the DTV converter attached can your TV still receive analog broadcasts?

Short answer: yes.

“The analog-pass-through feature means you can receive analog TV broadcasts by simply turning the receiver off,” says The Source Web site.

The T8’s ability to receive both analog broadcasts and digital signals is a useful feature for Canadian households affected by both the Canadian and U.S. transition dates, according to Ed Miceli, senior category sales manager of subscriber services at The Source.

Can Canadians use DTV converters purchased outside of Canada? 

Consumers can buy DTV converters in the U.S. for use in Canada, according to Industry Canada.

But these must be compatible with and labeled according to the BETS-7 standards.

Buyers should look for the following label to ensure the box is suitable for use here: “Supplementary Television Receiving Apparatus – Appareil supplémentaire de réception de télévision, Canada BETS-7 / NTMR-7.”

In the U.S., a similar converter model to the one carried by The Source is the STB/T9, and has been rated highly by Consumer Reports, according to Miceli.

The T8 – available in Canada – has the same basic architecture, but also allows analog signals to pass through the box.

How many Canadians are likely to be affected by the U.S. transition?

That’s difficult to quantify – but it isn’t likely to be a very significant number.

The percentage of Canadians who rely exclusively on over-the-air television is small.

Less than 10 per cent of our population don’t subscribe to either cable or satellite service, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean these folk are watching over-the-air broadcasts either. They could be accessing illegal cable or reading books!

Miceli notes that areas along the U.S.-Canadian border – where people are most likely to view American over-the-air broadcasts – are also heavily cabled, and have high penetrations of satellite TV.

But he said many inhabitants of southwestern Ontario, Hamilton, the Golden Horseshoe area and Montreal continue to receive over-the-air broadcasts.

As of now, about 500 (roughly one quarter) of the main, over-the-air stations in the U.S. have already converted to digital, Miceli said.

Canadians who could be affected by the August 2011 deadline include those with second or third TVs at home, older TVs in cottages, and campers or recreational vehicle owners.

“Regular market forces and our geographical reality have contributed to a situation where many Canadians have already adopted the technologies required for the transition,” said Canadian Heritage.

With files from Joaquim P. Menezes

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