Q&A May/June 2008 – Snowed Out: The Transition to Digital TV


On Feb. 17, 2009, a Federal Communications Commission mandate ending all analog broadcast transmissions will take effect. After February, all terrestrial television broadcasters in the United States are required to broadcast signals in digital format, which is more efficient in bandwidth capacity, delivers higher quality resolution and audio-visual quality, and is virtually free of interference.

The FCC did not mandate a specific digital format, so broadcasters are free to choose from one of 18 American Television Standards Committee digital television formats. To facilitate the digital TV transition, the FCC required ATSC digital tuners to be integrated into all new TV sets.

However, considering the number of older analog TV sets at correctional facilities throughout the United States, the cost to the corrections industry of meeting the new digital requirements could be staggering.

Correctional News talked with Jerry Budge, director of marketing and product management at Blonder Tongue Laboratories Inc., a New Jersey-based designer, manufacturer and supplier of broadband systems equipment and technical engineering services for voice, video and data service providers.

Budge spoke on the impending digital TV transition and offers an inside perspective on the consequences, implications and preparedness strategies for the corrections industry.

CN: What will happen to my old analog TV set in February 2009?

Jerry Budge: Because the analog signal will be shut off, your TV screen will turn to snow and you won’t get any picture or sound.

Q: How will this transition to a digital transmission format affect correctional facilities?

A: A lot of jails, prisons and detention facilities rely on free off-the-air broadcasts and after Feb. 17, 2009 transmissions will only be available in digital format, which the old analog system TVs cannot receive and understand. So if you’ve got an older set then basically you get no more off-the-air TV. Without conversion technology, millions of analog TV sets will become obsolete and non-functioning overnight.

Blonder Tongue’s free Digital Transition Survival Guide delineates digital broadband systems into simple building blocks for use in specifying RF systems for various facility types, from prisons and jails to hospitals and schools.
In corrections, the TV has traditionally played a peacekeeping role and functioned as a babysitting tool, keeping inmates occupied, happy, and passive. Losing that tool overnight presents a real possibility for unrest, tension and retaliation among the inmate population, so the DTV transition represents a real concern in terms of optimal facility operations and a clear and imminent danger to safety and security.

Q: What can corrections officials do to address the situation and what options are available to deal with the DTV transition?

A: You basically have two options. You could send your working analog sets to the recycler and buy all new digital TV sets, which cost upward of several hundred dollars per set.

For large facilities that have a lot of sets and don’t have a money tree growing in the exercise yard, the only real-world solution is to augment the network system’s central headend to receive and process digitally formatted signals and distribute them as analog signals. Installing a commercial-grade demodulator, such as Blonder Tongue’s AQD unit, will allow the existing network system to process the new digital format transmissions and relay the broadcasts to the existing analog sets in a traditional analog format.

Q: How does the demodulator work?

A: A modulator creates channels from the basic audio-visual components of broadcast signals, while a demodulator breaks down transmissions into these basic audio-visual components. Blonder Tongue’s Agile ATSC/QAM Demodulator unit receives digitally formatted broadcast signals and breaks them down into their basic A-V components. Systems integrators then hand off these baseband A-V signals to a standard analog modulator to create an analog version of the original digital source for each specific TV channel — Channel 5, Channel 9, Channel 20, whatever it happens to be. The unit functions in a similar way to the RCA connectors on the back of your DVD or VCR player at home.

Q: Would this demodulator option represent a cost-effective DTV-transition solution for all correctional facilities?

A: Blonder Tongue has designed systems for federal and state penitentiaries and there are certainly economies of scale at play because you need to install one set of equipment for each channel that you want to receive and relay. Each unit costs about $1,000.

In the case of a large facility with 50 analog TV sets running off a central network that is relaying five different channels, there is no question that it makes economic sense to upgrade the system with five demodulators rather than replace all 50 TV sets.

Q: What about small facilities at the local or municipal level? Does the demodulator represent a cost-effective solution?

A: For smaller facilities, the economies of scale and math flow in the opposite direction. In the case of a small jail with several TV sets that receive 10 channels, officials should just bite the bullet and replace their analog TV sets with new digital sets. There are some cheaper residential work-around solutions on the market, but I wouldn’t recommend them for use in a public-sector setting, such as corrections.

The modular AQD unit allows the reception and demodulation of an 8VSB or QAM signal for analog-based delivery. 8VSB is the eight-level vestigial sideband modulation format adopted for terrestrial broadcast of the ATSC digital TV standard in the United States and Canada. QAM is the quadrature amplitude modulation format used to encode digital cable channels in order to send through the cable TV network.
The residential-type solutions are not manufactured using commercial-grade, heavy-load components and are not ADA-compliant, because generally they cannot handle features such as Closed Captioning or Second Audio Program. Blonder Tongue’s AQD unit is designed specifically to augment a central network and is manufactured with commercial-grade components. The AQD is not designed for residential use or for installation on individual TV sets.

Q: Does the demodulator take up a lot of space?

A: One of the benefits of the digital era has been the advent of significantly smaller components and reduced space requirements for all kinds of systems. Basically, you will replace old components with new components with a similar or smaller footprint. If you have existing headend equipment then you have the space to accommodate a demodulator.

Q: What is the first thing a facility administrator or decision maker should do to address the DTV deadline and prepare my facility for the impending transition?

A: You need to reach out to the staff members that have responsibility for technology at your facility and find out what they have done, are doing and plan to do to ensure the facility is prepared for the transition from analog to digital.

There are a lot of good educational and informational resources out there, from governmental to non-profit to commercial. Blonder Tongue has developed the Digital Transition Survival Guide, which is basically a road map detailing what you need to put in place to prepare properly and make it through the DTV transition.

In my experience, most facilities do their heavy lifting through external contractors and that’s a limited resource pool in terms of the DTV transition. Manufacturers can only make so many widgets, and installation engineers can only handle so many projects at any given time. This resource pool will only become more limited the closer we get to February 2009, as facilities scramble to be ready. But as we speak, more than 90 percent of channels are already running simultaneously in digital format, so corrections officials have the opportunity to act immediately.

Q: What is your take-home message for corrections officials?

A: Officials should find out what they have done or need to do, make the budget accommodations, beat the rush and get the system up and running with enough time to correct any bugs. My advice is to get aware, get educated, get help, get started. You’ve got one year before it all turns to snow.

Blonder Tongue