How CBC's move to digital TV will hurt rural Canada

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The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is scheduled to shut down its remaining analog TV transmitters -- more than 630 of them across the country -- on July 31, a year ahead of the original schedule.

The move will affect millions of Canadians, particularly those in smaller cities and rural areas. (Cable and satellite subscribers in Canada will not be affected.)

Some of the larger impacted centres include London, Saskatoon, Lethbridge, St. John, Moncton, as well as Sherbrooke, Quebec City, Trois Rivieres and Chicoutimi, according to Angus McKinnon, CBC manager of media relations.

Last summer, CBC replaced analog transmitters with digital transmitters, but only in the 27 centres where the public broadcaster has stations, Steven Guiton, the corporation's vice-president and chief regulatory officer, told

No more free CBC

Outside of those larger centres (where digital over-the-air is be available), Canadians will have no choice but to pay the cable and satellite fees charged by private Telecom giants if they want to be able to watch the public broadcaster's television programs on their television sets.

"The difference is that instead of five platforms -- over-the-air TV, over-the-air radio, cable TV, satellite TV and Internet -- in everywhere outside of those 27 centres there will only be four platforms," Guiton explained. (In fact many rural areas now have no access to cable or high speed Internet.)

That's unless a community decides to organize and negotiate to acquire the transmission towers and/or transmitters to keep analog going (or upgrade to digital) in order to maintain access to over-the-air TV and to other services they may want to provide, such as community TV and radio, and (possibly) wireless Internet.

CACTUS (the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations) has been promoting this option and has produced an 18-page handbook to guide communities who want to explore these opportunities.

More than 100 communities in Canada already maintain their own broadcasting towers and retransmit TV signals to residents for a fraction of the cost of cable or satellite. According to a CACTUS press release, "The communities slated to lose CBC, Radio-Canada and private network signals have options that we can help them explore."

The federal government department in charge of broadcasting and digital communications -- Canadian Heritage -- has even provided a link from its website to the CACTUS publication.

Preserving the public sphere

"We would like to see the CBC-owned towers and the channels they transmit on -- infrastructure paid for by Canadians in the 1970s as part of a nation-building exercise to ensure access to the public broadcaster -- to be kept in the public sphere," says Cathy Edwards, spokesperson for CACTUS.

"The public spectrum should remain in public hands so rural areas can have access to new and updated communications services as they evolve."

But an outstanding question is: who will inform the affected communities of this option so they can investigate the possibility of acquiring the infrastructure? (The complete list of locations of the more than 600 doomed analog transmitters has not been posted.)

It seems unfair to leave that task to CACTUS, a small non-profit association created, according to its website, "to help ensure that ordinary Canadians have a voice within the broadcasting system."

To save the infrastructure, CACTUS wants to CBC to commit to work with communities in which the analog transmission equipment is to be decommissioned. Guiton says he is willing to work with communities, but adds that CBC will soon be hiring a national real estate broker to sell the 87 transmission towers that it owns outright, as well as the land they are located on. He adds that the corporation has already given notice to the tower owners and will act to dismantle the analog transmitters promptly after July 31 "in order to avoid monthly charges."

CBC is planning to launch a public information/awareness/media campaign about the demise of analog over-the-air television, says McKinnon. But he adds that campaign won't roll out until about mid-June, which is only a month and a half before analog over-the-air access to CBC TV is scheduled to disappear.

Budget cuts cause faster shut down of analog transmission

The CBC moved up the date to shut down analog TV transmission (originally scheduled for 2013) because of funding cuts announced in the latest federal budget. For the same reason, it aims to sell off the assets it owns. "Our goal is to make money ... to maximize the value ... we want to try to get as much money as we can to put back into programming," Guiton explained.

Another 300 CBC towers, which are also used for radio transmission, will be not be sold, although the analog transmitters will be dismantled on those towers.

Finally, the CBC also leases space on about 250 towers (mostly owned by Telecom companies and other broadcasters). It will shut down its analog TV transmitters on those towers -- and will not replace them with digital transmitters -- on July 31.

CBC commissioned research indicated that before last summer, when the corporation introduced digital transmission to 27 major centres, about seven per cent of adult Canadians (18 years and older) accessed TV "off air" (the research says that figure is now five per cent) while the largest proportion of adult Canadians accessed TV through cable (57 per cent) and satellite (26 per cent).

Market failures hurt local media in Canada

The research also indicated that last summer only a small percentage of the "off air" (or over-the-air analogue) viewers in the major centres were prepared for the transition to digital.

Guiton stresses that, in his view, the "real" story here is not about the demise of over-the-air access to television. Instead "the nub of the issue" is the high cost of accessing TV by cable and satellite. The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) has an obligation to make cable and satellite affordable for Canadians, he observes.

CACTUS has documented the market failures undermining healthy local media in Canada, and it notes that funding "dedicated to national public and community broadcasting is marginal in Canada, relative to other countries, even though Canada's Broadcasting Act considers both to be key elements of our broadcasting system."

Unless communities can be informed and can mobilize, the shut down of CBC's more than 600 analogue transmitters will leave them, according to a position paper by CACTUS and the Canadian Media Guild, "without the infrastructure to ever offer local over-the-air services of any kind: a community channel, wireless broadband or mobile service." 

Ann Silversides is an independent journalist based in Perth, Ontario. 

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