The climbing cost of communications

Is Cranbrook in one of those digital black holes that the communications revolution will pass by?

For those of you who haven’t used a TV antenna for a while, you may not have noticed when the CBC finally switched over completely to a digital broadcast signal near the end of July.

This was not unexpected; the CRTC started warning us about this some time ago. There were advertisements encouraging people using antennas to get converters for their analog TVs if they wanted to hang on to the privilege of getting bombarded with advertising between programs.

Unfortunately, there were a few things that the CRTC didn’t bother to mention at the time. One was that unless you live in a high-density population area, a digital converter could be useless. This changeover didn’t include the signal relay towers servicing areas like the Kootenays, so instead of an analog CBC signal, there is now no signal at all.

According to an email I received from the CBC about this change, this is because of CRTC policies. Oddly enough, though, there is still a CTV analog signal available. It appears to be a digital signal being converted into analog somewhere between here and Lethbridge. The broadcast freezes up every now and then, but it’s there at the moment without a converter.

According to the CRTC’s statistics, about 90 per cent of the country now receives its TV by either cable or satellite dish, so apparently, the need for over-the-air service is negligible. I’m not sure, but I would imagine this negligible 10 per cent is more pronounced in rural and cottage areas, where people might just want to check out the news now and then and not worry about choosing a monthly package that includes access to The Cabbage Channel.

Now, if you live in Vancouver, say, or Calgary, you can still theoretically get a CBC digital signal with an antenna, but if you’re living beyond commuting distance and have any interest in watching television, you’re likely paying for it.

As an interim measure, one of the providers has offered to set up all the backwoods antenna people with satellite access to the lost signals for free. Under the LTSS program, you must register and promise that you haven’t paid somebody to receive the signal in the past 90 days. While this does address some of the short-term problems, it does indicate that in the long term, no one should expect to get a signal without a provider.

For those who would still rather not be beholden to a provider, there is the option of using non-proprietary equipment to get free-to-air (FTA) signals directly from satellites. A growing number of these signals are encrypted, but as long as you don’t mind getting your news, weather, and sports from the Al Jazeera Network, it’s still possible.

This all points to a major paradigm shift in how we’re supposed to think about communications. Increasingly, we are asked to embrace the new technologies, but unlike those earlier visions of people like Marshall MacLuhan, our participation in the Global Village now includes an increasing monthly invoice and an expanding number of private and government institutions monitoring or even controlling its use.

And if you’re concerned about those relay towers sitting idle, don’t worry. Now that they aren’t being used for television signals, the freed-up spaces will be sold to communications companies who need them for cellular phones and other new technology.

You may not be able to get the CBC for free when you’re out here in the hinterland, but on the bright side, the prospects are that you’ll never be out of range of a telemarketer.

Bob Wakulich is an instructor at the College of the Rockies