The cheap, fast approach to making the DTV leap

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The deadline for commercial stations to convert at least part of their signals to digital is less than one month away, and about 1,000 stations still haven’t made the switch, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.
At this week’s NAB convention, several manufacturers will be offering quick fixes and deals to stations that are scrambling.
“We’ve been anticipating this,” says Steven Zakaib, VP of sales and marketing for Lafayette, Colo.-based Larcan USA, a company that sells broadcast technology. “Two years ago we had a brainstorming session and decided we should come up with a solution for people who waited until the last minute.”
That solution is the DTV-Lite, which ranges from $30,000 for a 100-watt transmitter to $70,000 for the 1 kilowatt model. Mr. Zakaib said any station that buys a transmitter with less than 1,000 watts of power can be sure it will be installed by the Federal Communications Commission’s May 1 deadline.
System integrator SynaSys in San Jose, Calif., is appealing to financially burdened stations with its offer to put them on the air broadcasting digitally for $23,000 with no money down. “We’re selling a bargain-basement turnkey system,” said Larry Shenosky, VP of marketing. “I’ve worked most of my life in large TV stations, where you forget what it’s like to struggle. This year there was no election advertising, and most people didn’t have the Olympics, so we’re trying to make it easy for small mom-and-pops to comply.”
New rules ease the pain
Compliance these days is easier-and potentially cheaper-than was anticipated, thanks to rules changes the FCC made in November. While it didn’t delay the deadline, as many had hoped, it did offer stations the option of going on the air with lower-powered and therefore less expensive transmitters. The stations can expand coverage to their entire existing service area as the DTV transition progresses without losing interference protection in their allotted service area. The FCC says stations are expected to initially construct and operate facilities that offer DTV services to at least their community of license, but the FCC also agrees that financial hardship is grounds for amending construction deadlines.
The skeptical are taking this message from the FCC to heart, Mr. Zakaib said. “I have customers who are asking for a 1- or a 3-watt transmitter,” he said. “I tell them, `You’re not going to be able to see it unless you’re standing next door.’ They say, `I don’t care.”’
Cheaper may not be better
While a quick-fix small digital transmitter could keep the FCC from knocking on a station’s door and costs less than $10,000, it might not be the wise solution in the long run, because not all the quick fixes being sold are upgradable, company representatives from several vendors said.
SynaSys is a system integrator that buys component parts at low prices from a variety of manufacturers and puts them together to create a system. Mr. Shenosky said the systems are fully upgradable, although some of the individual parts may require replacement.
The financing plan that Mr. Shenosky touts is accomplished through such third-party sources as American Express. All competitors said that for cash-strapped customers they can offer financing help that includes leasing plans and flexible financing through lenders.
Lawrence, Pa.-based Axcera is offering DTValue, which includes a Dolby 5.1 encoder, an SDTV encoder, an 8VSB signal/transport stream/video monitoring package and a low-power DTV transmitter. The package integrates all system components, including the digital output mask filter, into a single rack for output powers from 50 watts to 500 watts. Multicabinet systems are also available from 1KW to 3KW. “The key is that it is quick,” said Rich Swartz, director of marketing. “It’s one rack. You plug it in, feed it with inputs, plug into the transmission line and you are on the air. It’s that easy.” Prices start at under $100,000.
Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla., is offering the Ranger, a product introduced in the past few months to answer the needs of stations that must get up and running quickly. David Glidden, director of television transmission products, said the Ranger is fully upgradable and available with as few as 500 watts of power, though he recommends that stations consider what competing stations are doing, since sales of HDTV sets have increased substantially in the past year.
“Many stations would be better served with higher power,” Mr. Glidden said, pointing to datacasting opportunities in rural areas where neither cable nor DSL is available. He also urged stations to consider the accelerated tax depreciation available to businesses this year.
“When people start looking at Ranger, they see that there isn’t that much of a price jump to go to the next class of products. For $150,000 they can get on the air, but for an additional $40,000, they can get on the air with a fully upgradable solid-state transmitter that has no waste at all.”