Community TV need not rely on the CBC’s old junk

Do you live in rural Manitoba or northwestern Ontario and still pick up CBC from one of their many towers dotting the region? Then get ready, because that signal will almost certainly be going off the air on July 31.

Canadian government policy once decreed that any community with 500 residents or more should, if possible, live within range of a CBC transmitter. This led to a proliferation of CBC towers across the province in the ’60s and ’70s, extending service to remote communities that had to wait until as late as 1975 to get their first glimpse of television.

Construction slowed in the late ’70s as the rapid growth of a new technology, satellite television, gave remote mining towns and First Nations access to the same array of programming found in the big cities.

By the late ’90s, home satellite dishes were both cheap and compact, leaving the CBC’s aging network of rural transmitters increasingly viewer-less.

Thus, it was no real surprise when the CBC applied on April 4 — less than a week after the federal government cut the Corporation’s funding by 10 percent — to shut down all of its English TV transmitters in Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario, except for the Winnipeg transmitter, on July 31.

Though the shutdown officially needs regulatory approval, the CBC “has already given notice to affected tower landlords and has terminated all of the Corporation’s leases on the sites where our analogue television transmitters are located,” according to an April 4 letter to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“We have also formally notified all [cable companies] of the termination of our analogue over-the-air television transmission at all sites effective July 31, 2012.”

This will save the CBC the enormous cost of converting its many transmitters across the province to handle digital signals. The Winnipeg stations that had to make this change by Aug. 2011 had to spend millions of dollars on engineering studies, new equipment and channel changes in preparation.

The CBC’s decision has led a small group called the Canadian Association of Community Television User Groups and Stations — or CACTUS for short — to insist that the CBC’s soon-to-be-retired towers and transmitters be made available for local use.

“This transmission infrastructure is worth millions and has already been paid for by Canadian taxpayers,” the group says on its web site.

“Rather than being scrapped, it could be maintained by communities themselves. The transmitters and towers can be used not just to continue free TV service, but also to set up local wireless Internet or mobile service, or a community TV or radio service.”

CACTUS supporters have launched a letter-writing campaign to federal broadcasting regulators, urging them to block the CBC from shutting down its rural transmitters without offering them to local communities first.

The trouble is: the CBC’s aging transmitters and towers are of limited value.

“Analogue technology and the related equipment and parts for repair are no longer readily available in the world,” the CBC noted in its April 4 application to the CRTC. “. . . [T]he expected life of these analogue transmitters is therefore very uncertain, and limited at best.”

Community groups taking over the CBC’s old rural transmitters would essentially have to go through all the steps required to launch a completely new TV station: applying for a broadcasting licence, building studios, buying a new transmitter, hiring staff, figuring out how to get the signal from the studio to the transmitter site, and so on.

And then there would be further complications.

First, there’s the matter of the towers. Many CBC towers are aging and require regular maintenance to ensure that failed strobe lights don’t make the tower a safety hazard to pilots, and to ensure that a tower can withstand the rigours of Manitoba weather.

In 1983, CKX-TV in Brandon was suddenly knocked off the air when its faulty 1,363-foot tower south of the city snapped and fell to the ground during a snowstorm. Across the border in 2004, Prairie Public Television’s Grand Forks transmitter was wrecked when a chunk of ice fell off the tower, and smashed through the roof of the transmitter shed at the tower’s base.

Then there’s the problem of the channel the CBC’s stations operate on.

Of the 48 transmitters that relay CBC Winnipeg programming to communities all over Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and three northern Saskatchewan villages, 46 of them are on the channel 2-13 VHF band.

Those are not good channels to be on in the digital era.

VHF channels 2-13 were fine in the old analog era. Though they were prone to interference from “skip” and everyday household appliances — hence the early abolition of the particularly vulnerable Channel 1 — they provided a reasonable signal at acceptable cost to station owners.

These channels were considered far preferable to UHF channels 14-83. UHF stations offered a cleaner signal, but needed more power to match the range of VHF stations, and reached fewer viewers due to the fact that many early antennas and TVs were not designed to receive UHF channels.

It’s all different in the digital era. Unlike old-style analog signals, digital signals don’t break out in squiggly lines, “ghosting” or dots when they are suffering from interference. The TV simply gives up trying to sort out the weird information it is receiving, and crashes.

VHF is so problematic for digital TV station owners that Rabbit Ears, a blog for digital TV enthusiasts, has started keeping track of stations’ desperate efforts to move to UHF, or at least get a massive power increase approved, under the heading VHF Nightmares.

This has been consistent with some Winnipeg viewers’ experiences: little or no difficulty picking up CBC, SRC, Global or Joy TV, all of which operate on UHF — but significant difficulty picking up CTV or Citytv, both of which stayed on their old VHF channels after the 2011 digital switchover.

To sort it all out, a community group that has been handed the CBC’s old equipment would have to find a UHF channel to move to, and not just install a new transmitter at the tower base, but a new transmitting antenna up at the top, too.

That would get very expensive, very quickly.

Those interested in keeping free CBC service in their community or starting a new community TV station have better options available to them than CACTUS’s plan.

They could follow the same path as local volunteer-run stations such as UMFM 101.5, CKUW 95.9 and CJNU 107.9, which operate from low-power transmitters installed on top of existing high-rises. (UMFM broadcasts from the corner of Portage and Main; CKUW and CJNU broadcast from neighbouring Osborne Village high-rises.)

Currently, nothing stops any community organization that has the funds to do so from applying for a TV station licence, even if it’s just a shoestring-budget operation consisting of a low-powered transmitter and antenna installed on top of a high-rise or a cell tower.

From a 70-metre (230-foot) high-rise or cell tower, a community group putting out a relative low-powered 500 watt signal on UHF channels 14-51 could expect to provide decent indoor reception over about an 11-kilometre (seven-mile) radius.

That would be enough to cover most of a medium-sized city, or a small town and its surrounding area.

Double the power to 1,000 watts (still a fraction of what commercial broadcasters use) and move up to a 110-metre (360-foot) tower or building, and coverage expands further to about 16 kilometres (10 miles).

And there are channels galore available for would-be community TV station operator to choose from. In Winnipeg, there are unclaimed channels on 25, 28, 42, 43, 46, 48 and 49. In Brandon, 16, 18, 27, 34 and 49 are up for grabs. The same is true for channels 30 and 50 in fast-growing Morden-Winkler.

Using the subchannels, a community group could offer CBC, CTV and Global service to a community abandoned by the corporate broadcasters, and offer a community channel based on Shaw’s Cable 9 in Winnipeg — or even on the hilariously bad Videon/Cablevision community access channels of the ’80s.

Community-based TV is within the grasp of any dedicated group of citizens. And it need not rely on the CBC’s goodwill.

 

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Community TV need not rely on the CBC’s old junk

  1. news8000 says:

    I’m getting all the local stations for free with Shaw’s LTTS. But I am also finding I’m watching more and more streaming content with my computer. Our access to wireless broadband in our rural area is turning out to be as or more important than tuning to the local channels on tv. I would put community resources first into securing wireless broadband coverage and take the leap into the new broadcast medium.

  2. John Dobbin says:

    I like the idea. However, when I mentioned co-op radio several months back, it took off with a resounding thump.

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