Why you might soon be able to kiss your cable or satellite provider goodbye

It was one of the ugliest campaigns that Canadians ever witnessed outside of an election campaign.

On one side were the country’s cable TV companies, calling on Canadians to fight the “TV tax”, which would force cable customers to pay a monthly surcharge to support their local TV stations.

On the other side were the country’s TV networks, calling on Canadians to help “save local television”, which the cable companies had charged their customers to watch without passing anything along to the content provider.

That was two years ago.

Relations between the cable operators and the TV networks have been tense ever since. But technological change might be about to bring back the acrimony of two years ago.

Here in Canada, the Sept. 1, 2011 switch to digital television went almost unnoticed by most people, less than 10 percent of whom receive their TV signals over the air.

Yet the broadcasters are in a powerful position to change that balance.

Right now, Canadian broadcasters are using digital TV at a fraction of its full capacity. They’re using it the old-fashioned way: one channel, one signal.

Go just south of the border to Grand Forks, however, and you’ll find digital television being used much differently.

For example, Prairie Public Television carries four program streams on each channel. On subchannels 1 and 2, you’ll find the usual PBS programming that you’d find on cable channel 3 here in Winnipeg — one in high-definition, the other in standard. On subchannel 3, you’ll find a channel with programs of interest to the station’s Minnesota audience. On subchannel 4, you’ll find a separate lineup of educational programming and documentaries.

ABC affiliate WDAZ carries its normal feed on subchannel 8.1, plus the CW Network on subchannel 8.2 and weather information and the audio from a Fargo radio station on subchannel 8.3.

Fargo NBC affiliate KVLY (formerly KTHI on Winnipeg’s cable dial from 1968 to 1986) carries its standard feed on channel 11.1 and a national general -interest specialty network called This TV on subchannel 11.2.

These subchannels are used inconsistently across the United States, however. Go a few hours down the highway to Duluth and you’ll find that the subchannel programming is totally different.

That’s because the U.S. networks own relatively few of their affiliates, preventing the networks from creating new national networks that can be tuned in over-the-air in every market, coast-to-coast.

The Canadian networks don’t have that problem. Tune in CBC, CTV, Global or Citytv and you’re most likely getting your signal from a local transmitter owned and operated by the national network.

Thus, if they wanted to, the networks could bypass the cable and satellite companies and deliver their specialty channels over the air in every major market in Canada, with a lineup which might look something like this:

Winnipeg

3.1 Radio-Canada Winnipeg (Standard)
3.2 Radio-Canada Winnipeg HD
3.3 RDI (all-news)
3.4 Artv (arts/culture)
3.5 (Optional audio or subscription service)

6.1 CBC Winnipeg (Standard)
6.2 CBC Winnipeg HD
6.3 CBC News Network
6.4 Bold
6.5 Documentary

7.1 CTV Winnipeg HD
7.2 TSN
7.3 CTV Two
7.4 Much
7.5 CTV News Channel

9.1 Global Winnipeg HD
9.2 HGTV
9.3 Showcase
9.4 Slice
9.5 Food Network

13.1 Citytv Portage/Winnipeg (Standard)
13.2 Citytv HD
13.3 Sportsnet
13.4 OLN
13.5 G4 (or optional audio/subscription service)

35.1 Joy TV Winnipeg (standard)
35.2 Joy TV HD
35.3 Vision TV
35.4 ONE
35.5 (Optional audio or subscription service)

Before that becomes reality, however, there are two things left to do.

The first is for digital tuners to become commonplace in your mobile and handheld devices. Handheld digital TVs are already on the market, and adapters which would allow people to watch the news or sports on their iPhones while riding the bus or sitting in Starbucks are on their way, so that day is not far off.

The second is for the stations to upgrade their signals to the same standard used by cellular providers — something they should have done during this year’s digital transition, but didn’t always do.

Global’s signal now transmitting from high above Portage and Main already meets this standard, covering all except for the outer edges of Winnipeg with a signal equivalent to what you would need to get reliable indoor cellphone coverage.

The CBC’s signal is expected to be even stronger once the Mother Corp. sorts out the problems it’s been having with its antenna atop the Richardson Building. Weaker, but still adequate signals, are or will be available from Joy TV and Radio-Canada.

CTV’s and Citytv’s signals, however, aren’t up to standard. First of all, they’re still on the VHF band while everyone else is on UHF. VHF is roughly the digital TV equivalent of using a 2400-baud dial-up modem on a static-laced phone line in the high-speed Internet era, or trying to make money playing rock music on AM radio. VHF just won’t cut it.

CTV’s problem is compounded by the fact that their transmitter is so far south of town — watch for a tall tower just off Highway 75 next time you’re passing Ste. Agathe — that even if they switched to UHF, they would have to crank up the power to half a million watts or more to match Global’s signal quality in Winnipeg.

The same goes for Citytv, which operates from out near Elie. Both stations might want to consider scouting out the rooftops of Winnipeg’s high-rises as potential second transmitter sites.

But once that’s all been sorted out, many Winnipeggers might find themselves cutting the cord.

Several Manitoba communities set to lose service after Digital TV switchover

Forget the Government of Canada ads about “clearing the snow” from Canadians’ over-the-air TV reception after this week’s digital TV switchover in Canada’s big cities. Some Manitoba communities will have nothing but snow thanks to some little-publicized changes the TV stations are making.

Manitoba’s TV stations aren’t just changing to digital. Many of them are reducing power and some are moving from tall rural towers to city rooftops, reducing their signal’s range.

  • CBC and Radio-Canada used to broadcast from a 324-metre (1,063-foot) tower near Starbuck, Man at 100,000 and 59,000 watts respectively. They’ll be moving by October to the roof of the Richardson Building, and reducing power on their new UHF frequencies to 42,000 watts and 7,600 watts respectively.
  • CTV will be staying put on their Ste. Agathe tower, south of Winnipeg, but reducing power from 325,000 watts to 24,000 watts on Channel 7.
  • Global has moved to the top of the former CanWest building in downtown Winnipeg, and is now on UHF Channel 40 with a power of 25,000 watts. They formerly operated from the CBC’s Starbuck tower at 325,000 watts.
  • Citytv will be continuing to broadcast from its Elie tower, west of Winnipeg, but will reduce power from 325,000 watts to 8,300 watts on Channel 13.
  • Joy TV will continue to broadcast on Channel 35 from their tower just off St. Mary’s south of the Perimeter, but will be reducing power from 22,000 watts to 6,000 watts.

These power reductions are based in part on some controversial calculations made by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which oversaw the 2009 digital transition south of the border.

Even though digital TV should require less power than traditional analog TV to produce a watchable picture, many critics argue that the Commission grossly underestimated the power needed for a station’s signal to overcome the challenges of the urban environment, where signal-absorbing trees and buildings and interference from machines and appliances take their toll on a signal.

When the U.S. switched to digital in 2009, some stations frantically sought power increases or to move from the Channel 2-13 VHF to the Channel 14-52 UHF band as it became clear that their digital signals weren’t strong enough to penetrate the urban jungle.

Since there have been a lot of hits on this blog over the past few weeks from people with questions about digital TV in Manitoba, here is a pre-emptive response to the questions some of you will have as to why you can no longer receive your favourite stations — and some suggestions on what you can do about it.

And if you want to get a better idea of what you should be able to receive where you live, check out Your Guide to Digital TV in Winnipeg and Southern Manitoba.

If you live or have a cottage in Gimli/Winnipeg Beach…

  • Radio-Canada Manitoba will remain weak in Winnipeg Beach, even with a rooftop antenna, and will become virtually impossible to receive in Gimli. You’ll probably get better results pointing your antenna east toward their Channel 11 analog transmitter near Fort Alexander.
  • CBC might still have a so-so signal in Winnipeg Beach if you have a rooftop antenna. This signal will become very difficult to receive in Gimli. (Hint: If you point your antenna ESE, you might pick up a weak analog signal from CBC’s Channel 4 Lac du Bonnet analog transmitter. If you point it north, you might pick up another CBC signal on Channel 10 from Fisher Branch.)
  • CTV reception will be very poor, even with a rooftop antenna. (Hint: Viewers north of Inwood might be able to get a weak CTV analog signal on Channel 8 from the station’s Fisher Branch transmitter.)
  • Global, Citytv and Joy TV will be very weak in Winnipeg Beach, even with a rooftop antenna, and will be virtually impossible to receive in Gimli.

If you live in Morden/Winkler…

  • CBC and SRC will become virtually impossible to receive, even with a rooftop antenna. Currently, Morden is on the outer edge of the station’s rabbit-ears range, and Winkler is in the station’s rooftop-antenna zone.
  • CTV and Citytv’s signals will lose strength, and might be difficult to receive with an indoor antenna in the middle of town. Both stations currently offer moderately strong “Grade-A” analog signals or better.
  • Global should be virtually impossible to receive, now that it has reportedly shut down its old analog transmitter.
  • Joy TV will be difficult to receive.

If you live in Portage la Prairie…

  • Radio-Canada Manitoba will become extremely difficult to receive, even with a rooftop antenna. Currently, Portage la Prairie is on the outer edge of the station’s rabbit-ears range.
  • CBC Manitoba will only be putting a very weak “deep fringe” signal into Portage. Currently, Portage is on the outer edge of the CBC’s rabbit-ears reception range.
  • CTV reception will only be satisfactory with a rooftop antenna.
  • Now that its analog signal is reportedly off the air, Global will be very difficult (if not impossible) to receive in Portage. Portage is just outside the western fringe of Global’s digital TV coverage area.
  • Joy TV will be extremely difficult to receive, as Portage will be on the extreme outer edge of its digital reach.

If you live in Selkirk…

  • CTV and Citytv’s signals will lose some strength, and might be difficult to receive with an indoor antenna in the middle of town. Both stations’ current analog transmitters cover Selkirk with a moderate “Grade-A” signal.
  • Joy TV might also lose some strength, with its analog “city-grade” signal being replaced with a digital signal that might not be strong enough to overcome the ground clutter in the middle of town.

If you live in Steinbach…

  • Radio-Canada Manitoba, CBC and Global will all drop from good to marginal indoor reception in Steinbach. Signal quality will depend on how many buildings, trees and other obstructions there are between you and the transmitter.
  • Citytv will be even worse, as Steinbach sits right at the point where any realistic hope of receiving Citytv with an indoor antenna ends.

If you live in Winnipeg…

  • Citytv might be difficult to receive in the eastern half of the city if you’re using an indoor antenna. Signal quality will depend on how much ground clutter — such as buildings and trees — there is between you and the Citytv transmitter.

Incidentally, the stations aren’t necessarily to blame for coverage reductions. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal agency which regulates the airwaves in Canada, invited public comments on both Global’s and the CBC’s plans to reduce rural coverage — and no one objected.

Your Guide to Digital TV in Winnipeg and Southern Manitoba

(Updated May 20, 2012 with more realistic coverage maps and updated information on KNRR’s directional antenna.)

As Winnipeg’s TV stations prepare to shut off their remaining analog transmitters for good, there have been many visitors landing on this blog seeking information about digital TV. Thus, I’ve decided to put together this guide meant to help those who are getting ready for the digital switchover.

You’ll notice that the maps below are colour-coded.

Orange zone — Deep Indoor strength: Very strong signal. Should be fairly easy to receive in most homes and offices if you’re using the right antenna (i.e., a larger VHF antenna for CTV, KNRR and Citytv, and a smaller UHF antenna for the others). Signal might be less reliable in areas where people generally don’t spend much time watching TV anyway, such as elevators and parkades, or in areas with a lot of electrical and mechanical interference on the VHF channels. (Signal strength: 90+ dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Magenta zone — Residential Indoor strength: Strong signal. Generally strong enough to penetrate the interior of most homes. Reception should be good for CBC, SRC, Global and Joy TV, all of which operate on UHF; VHF stations CTV, KNRR and Citytv might require the use of a good-quality VHF antenna with the rods lowered to horizontal and at a right angle to the transmitter. On the VHF channels, it’s best to have the antenna as far away as possible from refrigerators, air conditioners, microwave ovens and other appliances that might cause interference.  (Signal strength: 80-89 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Light Blue zone — The “Maybe Zone”: Use an outdoor or attic antenna pointed toward the transmitter for best results.  Or, if you’re using a hand-held device, try going outside. Indoor reception might be good in signal-friendly areas, such as rural and low-density suburban areas, or on the transmitter side of a high-rise. Indoor reception will likely be more difficult in inner-city areas and in the depths of the urban jungle. (Signal strength: 70-79 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Dark Blue zone — Rooftop Antenna Recommended: This signal generally won’t be received well inside a building unless you’re in a low-density suburban or rural area and near a window facing the transmitter. UHF channels might still come in reasonably well if using a hand-held device outside of the urban jungle. A rooftop antenna pointed toward the transmitter should offer more favourable results.  (Signal strength: 60-69 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

Grey zone — No Indoor, Hit-and-Miss Outdoor: The signal will be quite weak in these areas. Don’t count on any indoor reception, or even on getting good results with an outdoor antenna in the heart of the city. You might get good reception, though, using a rooftop antenna in low-density suburban and rural areas.  (Signal strength: 50-59 dBu at 95% of locations, 99% of the time)

CBC Winnipeg (official call letters: CBWT) abandoned its long-time home on a tower located near Starbuck, Man. and relocated to a transmitter located at Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg. Since the lower channels are vulnerable to interference — which causes mild static or squigly lines to appear on analog signals, but which can seriously mess up digital signals — CBC moved up to Channel 27  on the UHF band, but will still show up on receivers as virtual channel 6.1. Reception remains good in Winnipeg.

CBWFT 3.1 coverage area

CBWFT (SRC) Channel 3.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


SRC, the French language equivalent of the CBC, also spent most of its life on the low end of the VHF dial since going on the air in 1960 as CBWFT on Channel 6, then switching to Channel 3 a few years later. Like its English-language sister station, Manitoba’s only French-language TV station now operates from high above Portage and Main at Channel 51 (virtual channel 3.1) on the UHF band. Indoor reception remains strong in Winnipeg, but varies elsewhere. Reception is reported to be quite good throughout Winnipeg.

CKY 7.1 coverage area

CKY (CTV) Channel 7.1 coverage area (Copyright lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)

CTV Winnipeg (a.k.a., CKY-TV) has not moved to the UHF band, opting to stay on its longtime Channel 7 VHF frequency. This could have both advantages and risks for the station. The advantages lie in the fact that over-the-air viewers do not have to invest in new UHF antennas in order to continue receiving the station. But as noted in the comments section, many viewers are having difficulty picking up CTV due to interference and the transmitter’s distance from the city.

Some VHF digital stations also fear being at a disadvantage as new handheld and mobile Digital TV devices come on the market in the near future. CTV Winnipeg still has the option of applying for a UHF channel, however. Reception should be better in the southern half of Winnipeg than the northern half.

CKND (Global) Channel 9.1 coverage area

CKND (Global) Channel 9.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Global Winnipeg (a.k.a., CKND) was the first Winnipeg TV station to make the transition to digital in 2010. Like the CBC, Global’s digital signal originates from Portage and Main at Channel 40 on the UHF band (Virtual Channel 9.1). Reception has been reported to be very good in Winnipeg.

CHMI (Citytv) Channel 13.1 coverage area

CHMI (Citytv) Channel 13.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Like CTV, CityTV (formerly known as 13 MTN, and later the A-Channel) is taking its chances on the VHF band, remaining on the Channel 13 frequency it has called home since going on the air in October, 1986. They’re running at only 8,000 watts, versus 24,000 watts for CTV, so their signal is hit-and-miss throughout Winnipeg.

CIIT (Joytv) Channel 35.1 coverage area

CIIT (Joytv) Channel 35.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Joy TV is to Winnipeg television what CKJS is to Winnipeg radio — it’s there, but most people are only vaguely aware of its existence. It’s really just a specialty channel that can be received without a cable or satellite subscription. But, if you’re a fan of Joy TV’s religious programming and reruns of The Waltons and The Rockford Files, you’ll be happy to know that this station, which began broadcasting in 2006, is still on Channel 35. Indoor reception is definitely better in the south end of the city than the northern half.

KNRR (Fox) Channel 12.1 coverage area

KNRR (Fox) Channel 12.1 coverage area (© lrcov.crc.ca, Google Maps)


Poor old KNRR never had much luck. It was imminently about to go on the air in 1982 when something went wrong, causing the station’s launch date to be pushed back to 1986. In the interim, Canadian broadcasting regulations had changed in such a way as to effectively block KNRR from getting a slot on Winnipeg’s cable systems.
Thus, trying to pick up the then-independent KNRR’s diet of Star Trek and movies became something of a sport for Winnipeggers in 1986, who then only had seven English-language channels to watch on cable TV unless they subscribed to pay TV — which even then brought the total number of choices to no more than a dozen channels.

After missing the U.S. digital switchover deadline and being forced off the air for four months, KNRR began offering the first digital signal to extend more than a few miles north of the Canadian border in October 2009. But KNRR’s signal is too weak to be received with any reliability in Winnipeg — one local Digital TV enthusiast recommends a 40-foot mast in your backyard for best results. (This might not be so popular with your neighbours, though.)

If you live in Morden, Winkler, Morris or Altona, your luck should be considerably better, particularly with a VHF antenna pointed toward Pembina.

Note that to receive digital TV over the air, you will need either a newer TV set that is capable of receiving ATSC signals or a special converter box — not necessarily the same kind of box provided by your cable company — hooked up to your traditional TV set.

* – Images source: Communications Research Centre/Google Maps.

Technical assumptions all based on F(95,99) at 9 metres above ground.