The road to digital TV is not paved with enough antennas

July 30th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Which one is the UHF?

Which one is the UHF?

Two weeks ago, the various government and private groups promoting the spread of digital terrestiral TV organized a parade to remind people that analog TV broadcasts will end in a year, on July 24, 2011. That would seem to be plenty of time to make sure everyone will be with the program, but the statistics point to a less certain future. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications last March, 83.3 percent of Japanese households now receive digital TV signals. However, an NHK survey carried out two months earlier found this number to be only 63.7 percent, and a private research company quoted in the Yomiuri Shimbun said it was “less than 70 percent.”

Why the big discrepancy, and, more important, why don’t more people have digital capability despite the fact that digital broadcasts have been available for years and the government and broadcasters have been plugging the hell out of the changeover? NHK and the commercial stations have together spent ¥1.5 trillion to convert to digital, and the nation has contributed another ¥200 billion to the project. The important thing to remember is that once the changeover happens, you can’t go back. When analog is gone, it’s gone forever, and not just because it would be cost-prohibitive for stations to revert. Manufacturers have already stopped producing analog equipment.

And when analog is gone, it could mean that up to 30 percent of Japanese households will be without TV, which is a big problem for a democracy, not to mention a country as susceptible to natural disasters as Japan is. Though most of the media attention has been on the delivery systems, meaning the flatscreen, high-definition, digital sets that have been coming down in price over the past year, the real obstacle is antennas. Analog tuners use VHF antennas, while digital tuners need UHF. Most households no longer have UHF antennas, and even those who do may not have the proper kind. Moreover, UHF antennas for digital have to be properly positioned or else the signal is useless. With analog, even if the signal is weak, you can get something on your TV. With digital, if the signal drops below a certain level, you get nothing.

The government has a program to subsidize poorer households so that they can purchase digital tuners for their old TVs — you need one for each set — but there is no similar program for antennas for individual households. Tuners are relatively cheap. You can find some for as low as ¥3,000. Antennas don’t cost much more, but you have to have them installed by  a specialist, and that ends up costing around ¥15,000. Most of the people in the larger cities who don’t have digital yet tend to live in apartment buildings whose landlords have yet to fork out the cash to buy an antenna and convert their units. Depending on the size of the building, the cost is between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000, and even though part of this can be subsidized by the government (they have to apply by the end of August), a lot of landlords are putting it off as long as possible.

Also, houses that sit in the “signal shadow” of taller buildings can’t receive sufficient digital signals regardless of where they position their antennas. Some local governments have asked owners of taller buildings to share their digital antenna feeds with lower-lying neighbors, but who’s going to pay for it? And if there’s a mountain between your home and the TV station, someone is going to have to build a relay tower on the top of the mountain.

The point seems to be that people with enough money and the right location for receiving signals were hooked up a long time ago, with the rest of the population stuck in analog limbo, mainly because of the cost. No amount of promotion is going to help them get with the program. What they need is infrastructure.

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