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CBC's switch to digital transmission will leave some without access

CBC radio tower on the west side of Jarvis just north of Carlton.

JP Shea/The Globe and Mail

Leslie Parrish is a self-employed contractor in Moores Mills, N.B., and, after a day spent painting houses or landscaping gardens, she likes to tune into the CBC for the local news and Coronation Street. Her budget doesn't run to a satellite subscription; she gets her TV through the antenna on her roof and she's worried that when the CBC shuts down a transmitter in Saint John, about 100 kilometres east of her, at the end of the summer, she will lose access to the public broadcaster - as will thousands of other Canadians.

"What is being delivered to me for free over the air should still be free," she said. "I shouldn't have to go through a middleman to get local news."

On Aug. 31, Canada makes the move to the digital transmission of television, changing the way broadcasters send TV signals into homes and freeing up valuable space on the airwaves that the federal government is expected to sell to wireless providers for billions of dollars. Cable and satellite subscribers won't notice any difference, but people who watch television over the air will need a recent TV set or a digital converter box on older sets to keep getting the signal - if there is a signal.

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Critics of the plan are complaining that everyone from hockey fans in Quebec to students in London, Ont., not to mention many New Brunswickers, are about to lose their access to the CBC, which says it can't afford to replace all its transmitters with the new technology.

While most Canadians will not be affected, the ones who will - those who can't afford cable or satellite - tend to be seniors, students, the unemployed and recent immigrants, raising questions about who the public broadcaster is supposed to serve.

CBC-Radio Canada is spending $60-million to replace 27 analog transmitters with digital ones, 14 English and 13 French, that will deliver pristine high-definition television for free in most cities between Vancouver and St. John's. But for the many haves, there are also some have-nots - another 16 communities including Saskatoon, London, Ont., and Saint John - which will lose over-the-air service.

The CBC estimates that less than 1 per cent of Canadians will be affected, but critics point out that the public broadcaster has a mandate to reach all Canadians.

"It was news to me: I am in the same situation as many Londoners; we just assume that if you turn on your TV, you'll find the CBC," said Matt Brown, a London city councillor who estimates 30,000 permanent residents in that city, not including students, will lose the CBC. "It creates a divide between those who can afford satellite and cable and those who can't. It's people living on the margins, and people living on the margins can't always advocate for themselves."

All broadcasters are required by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to go digital in 30 mandatory markets, including all provincial capitals and cities with a population over 300,000. The CRTC is letting broadcasters keep analog signals going only in rural locations outside the mandatory markets.

However, the bilingual CBC-Radio Canada, which has hundreds of transmitters scattered across a vast country, says it cannot afford to invest in digital even in all the mandatory markets - and in a mandatory market where there is no new digital transmitter, the broadcaster will still be forced to shut off the analog service.

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For example, CBC-Radio Canada will be turning off the French-language analog service in many English-speaking cities including Calgary, Windsor, Ont., and Halifax, and the English-language analog signals in most Quebec markets - except for Montreal and Ottawa/Gatineau. That move has annoyed some francophones because, in French, NHL games are only available on the specialty sports channel RDS. Quebeckers who want to watch the games without paying for cable or satellite rely on the English-language CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.

"No more free hockey on Saturday night. This is unacceptable," Quebec City resident José Breton writes on his blog protesting the proposed cut. " In principle, public television is supposed to be free. People pay taxes for Radio-Canada for both the French and English. So, citizens of Quebec City will not have a service for which they pay."

The CBC, however, argues that maintaining over-the-air signals for small numbers of viewers is not an efficient use of the broadcaster's $1.1-billion parliamentary subsidy.

It is only replacing the transmitters in places where it has a television station that originates programming: London, for example, does not have its own station; the signal is a retransmission from Toronto, while Saint John, although it is the larger city, receives a retransmission of the Fredericton signal. (Moncton, meanwhile, will only keep the French service.)

"It is difficult to justify given the small number of people," said Steven Guiton, the CBC's VP and Chief Regulatory Officer, pointing out most Canadians subscribe to cable or satellite. "The transition to digital is going to be a challenge for us; we've always said this ... We are sorry we can't continue with technology that is used by a small minority."

He said going digital in all mandatory markets would cost the CBC another $50-million, but he hopes the broadcaster might work out a plan with the CRTC to keep analog transmitters running. However, CRTC spokesman Denis Carmel said the CBC has not made any applications to maintain analog signals.

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Commercial broadcaster CTV said it will be ready with 23 transmitters for its mandatory English-language markets on Aug. 31, while Global said it will be setting up 85 digital transmitters, including 19 in mandatory markets.

Neither the CBC nor the commercial broadcasters have received any government funding to replace transmitters, although the spectrum they are freeing up - by moving to signals that take less space on the airwaves - is expected to earn the federal government billions when it is sold off to mobile providers in 2012. The last spectrum auction, in 2008, raised $4.25-billion.

"If you took $100-million from that money you could subsidize all the broadcasters, not just the CBC, with the costs of going digital," said Ian Morrison, spokesman for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a lobby group that argues the CBC's plan does not uphold its public mandate.

Readers can check the status of their over-the-air CBC coverage at

With files from Susan Krashinsky

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Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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