D-Day For Onboard Television - PassageMaker

D-Day For Onboard Television

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D-Day happens on a Tuesday this year. Not the anniversary of the invasion of Europe, but a turning point in the history of entertainment technology. Digital Day begins at midnight, February 17-halfway through "Leno" and "Letterman"-when the broadcast television industry ceases to transmit anything but digital signals. Non-digital signals, the old-fashioned analog transmissions of our youth, will cease forever, rendering millions of non-digital-ready TV sets useless.

D-Day happens on a Tuesday this year. Not the anniversary of the invasion of Europe, but a turning point in the history of entertainment technology. Digital Day begins at midnight, February 17-halfway through "Leno" and "Letterman"-when the broadcast television industry ceases to transmit anything but digital signals. Non-digital signals, the old-fashioned analog transmissions of our youth, will cease forever, rendering millions of non-digital-ready TV sets useless.

The purists among you are probably thinking, "so what?" Wasn"t the trawler life supposed to provide an antidote for the excesses of civilization? Wasn't it supposed to strengthen our spiritual connection to nature?

Maybe, except for your addiction to the adventures of a perversely funny physician named House, whose show happens at 7 p.m. that same Tuesday on Fox. Bear in mind, too, that on D-Day plus 30, NCAA March Madness commences with coverage on CBS. And, of course, your wife has an incurable affection for "Desperate Housewives" on ABC, not to mention "Oprah."

You two are not alone. Just count the television antennas at any marina. Statistics show that most boats with an enclosed cabin have a television, whether it's a small 12-volt camper model or a state-of-the-art flat screen. Weekend warriors and long-term cruisers alike bring their television habits with them nowadays when they head to the water-especially if they"ve got kids or grandkids.

More than 120,000 boats from 25 to 40 feet have televisions on board, only 2 percent of which receive satellite broadcasts, according to figures from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. The rest are tuned to broadcast or connected to dockside cable. The likelihood of satellite systems, of course, is much greater on powerboats of 35 feet or larger, and manufacturers such as KVH are reaching out to the owners of sailboats and smaller powerboats with ever more compact products.

Price is a function of an antenna's satellite-tracking prowess. Those that allow you to watch television while swinging at anchor sell for at least $500, while the smallest marine antenna for viewing under way costs more than $3,000.

Worth the dollars? These systems deliver more than 160 channels viewable on either digital or high-definition televisions up to 200 miles offshore. Walk the docks at any boat show, and you will see this DTV and HDTV technology writ large in nearly every other saloon and stateroom.

Often ignored in discussions of television afloat is old-fashioned broadcast television, except that it"s not so old-fashioned anymore. It even has a new sci-fi sounding name; it"s been dubbed "digital terrestrial TV."

Digital terrestrial television has been broadcast for a few years now in parallel with outgoing analog during a transition period that ends on the 17th. Digital technology lets viewers watch quadruple the number of stations and some of America"s most popular programming on HDTV-with an antenna that costs less than $300 and without paying a monthly subscription fee.

And for that, you can thank the U.S. government, which mandated the transition to all-digital broadcast. The Federal Communications Commission says ending analog TV was intended to free up parts of the "scarce and valuable broadcast spectrum," which it will redirect for public safety and other wireless services. Meanwhile, the efficiency of DTV allows each station to divide its allocated 19 megabits of bandwidth into several sub-channels. Instead of just having a Channel 7, for example, viewers may also be able to turn to 7.2, 7.3, or 7.4.

Boaters in the upper Chesapeake Bay can watch up to 60 channels in the Baltimore-Washington market. There are 26 terrestrial broadcasts to the boat-rich Tampa Bay, Florida, area and nearly 30 available in densely populated South Florida. In fact, if you are located between two closely spaced markets such as Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, you will be able to receive about 50 stations provided you have an adequate antenna.

A terrestrial station often will allocate one of its sub-channels entirely to local weather, and some stations have opted to devote a sub-channel to a real-time readout from the nearest Nexrad Doppler weather radar. This is another freebie from the point of view that both the WxWorx and The Weather Channel sell a radio-based service that allows boaters to view the same Nexrad in real time on a PC or chart plotter. Both of these subscription services also require $900 to $1,700 up front for hardware and software, and while both offer a host of other valuable weather information, the sexiest feature in their inventory is that live radar.

Fred Platt of Majestic Global USA in Boca Raton, Florida, says his company sells more than 6,000 marine TV antennas a year, most of which resemble little flying saucers on masts and cabin tops. Prices range from $200 to $545. These antennas are omni-directional, so they don"t need the stabilization and tracking features that make satellite antennas both bigger and more expensive.

"A lot of people assume the only way you're going to get high-definition TV is with cable TV or satellite," says Platt. "But as we go digital, satellite TV is going have a lot more competition from broadcast."

So for those boaters without digital-capable televisions, there are only three choices. Give up broadcast TV altogether, buy a new digital-ready TV set, or buy a converter box that allows you to adapt your old analog TV for digital reception. The one thing you do not have to do is buy a new broadcast antenna.

"The biggest misconception out there is that you need a new special type of antenna. That"s not true. Even a pair of rabbit ears will pick up a digital signal," Platt says.

For many trawler owners, D-Day is providing the impetus to upgrade to a new flat-screen television. If you"ve been to a boat show lately, you may have noticed how the advent of flat-screen technology has transformed saloon design on new boats. Gone are the deep cabinets that housed those old TVs. Instead they"ve gone James Bond, with flat-screens folding down, folding up, or rising with the help of servomotors from the top of the furniture. Most, however, are bracketed to a bulkhead nearly touching the overhead, like the TV in your old neighborhood pub.

For those of you who like your current analog set, there is a man standing on the finger pier next to your boat. He says he's from the government, and he"s here to help.

Thanks to the former Bush administration, the U.S. government is distributing $40 coupon gift cards toward the purchase of eligible converter boxes (two coupons for $80 if you have two analog TVs). All you have to do is go online or apply by telephone before March 30. Dozens of popular converter models are approved for this mass subsidy. Models can be found at retailers such as Radio Shack and Wal-Mart and cost $50 to $60.

These boxes resemble small satellite or cable receivers and come with a remote channel changer. While many components of an onboard TV entertainment system may be hidden in lockers or behind bulkheads (see diagram), the converter will need to be situated in plain view for you to be able to use the clicker.

Chris Watson is a spokesman for KVH, one of the leading providers of stabilized marine satellite antennas. Watson said he doesn"t expect D-Day for broadcast television to cut into the marine market for satellite hardware and services. That"s because digital television continues to have one of the same limitations as analog; range is limited to about 50 miles from the broadcast source, though a top-of-the-line amplified antenna may be able to pull in signals from up to 75 miles away.

"The new terrestrial services aren't any better than their analog predecessor in terms of coverage, so I don't see this as a new competitive threat to our satellite TV products," Watson says. "In addition, digital terrestrial TV is also largely still limited to local channels, while many people will still desire the variety of satellite."

To boaters on a budget (and those would-be escapists) there is a message. Picking an onboard television system should take into account where a family does its boating, who is usually on board, and the crew"s TV-viewing habits. Some boaters might be perfectly happy getting their fix on a system that costs hundreds rather than thousands of dollars. On the other hand, mariners bound for the islands won't be watching "Mad Men" or "The Daily Show," let alone "Jeopardy," without paying the extra... as in extra-terrestrial; that being satellite.

Relevant websites and telephone numbers:

$40 converter coupon

Coupon website, https://dtv2009.gov/ApplyCoupon.aspx , or call 1.888.388.2009

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