Thousands of Canadians who were about to lose their over-the-air CBC television signal have got a reprieve: The federal broadcast regulator announced Tuesday that it will allow the public broadcaster to keep its old analog transmitters up and running for another year.
Canada moves to digital transmission of television signals Aug. 31 and, on that date, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission requires all broadcasters to shut off analog signals in 28 mandatory markets covering all major cities. The CBC, however, says it cannot afford to replace all its transmitters with the new technology, leaving places from Saint John to London, Ont., and Saskatoon without an over-the-air signal.
People with cable or satellite will notice no difference when Canada goes digital. People who use rabbit ears or an antenna will need either a recent TV set with a digital tuner or a converter box on older sets to continue receiving over-the-air signals.
The CBC's $60-million plan for 27 digital transmitters – 14 English and 13 French – includes new hardware for all centres that originate programming but does not include re-transmitters for places such as London, which receives the Toronto signal. Also, it would turn off the second-language signal in many places: in Quebec, only Montreal and Gatineau would still receive over-the-air English signals; English-speaking cities including St. John's, Halifax, Windsor, Ont., and Calgary would no longer have French signals.
Although the CBC estimates these cuts would effect less than one per cent of Canadians, the CRTC is now allowing the broadcaster to keep the old signals running in 22 markets until 2012, when it can review the CBC's plans at a licence renewal hearing scheduled for June.
"The CRTC has made the right decision," said London city Councillor Matt Brown. "The CBC has do what is necessary to ensure they don't create a digital divide between those who have cable and satellite and those who don't."
Mr. Brown is concerned that students, seniors and the unemployed in his city would be particularly hard hit by the loss of the free CBC signal.
"Our intention is to keep going in analog for as long as we can," said Angus McKinnon, manager of media relations for the CBC "We'll need to re-evaluate the situation in mandatory markets as we approach the end of our one-year extension."
Private broadcasters, on the other hand, are angered that the CBC is receiving an extension on a deadline they have had to meet.
"We're committed to doing [the switch]anyway. But it's incredible that you'd have one government agency saying everyone has to switch by Aug. 31, and then a Crown corporation that gets $1-billion a year can't do it," said Ken Stein, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs for Shaw Communications Inc., which owns the Global television network.
Global is planning to convert 85 transmitters, of which 19 serve mandatory markets and will be ready for Aug. 31. Meanwhile, CTV is converting 23 transmitters, all in mandatory markets.
The CRTC is moving the system to digital transmission because it provides higher quality over-the-air signals and is a more efficient use of spectrum. The plan is to free up channels 52 to 69 for police and emergency services, and for mobile providers who are expected to pay billions for the space in a government auction scheduled for 2012. Although the CBC does not broadcast in the spectrum that will be auctioned, all broadcasters are being asked to go digital to make room for those who are being displaced, and to avoid a mixed analog-digital system.
With a report from Susan Krashinsky