08/28/2011 06:00 EDT | Updated 10/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Canadians with cable, satellite won't be affected by switch to digital signals

MONTREAL - Canadians with cable or satellite TV won't be affected, but viewers who have old televisions and rely on antennas for over-the-air reception can expect "snow" on their screens as broadcasters move to digital signals by Wednesday.

About 850,000 Canadian households don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV services, said Scott Hutton, the CRTC's executive director of broadcasting.

"If your channel switches to digital and you just try to turn it on, you will have snow," Hutton said of Canadians who only have rooftop antennas, or rabbit ears, and older TVs.

"It just won't be broadcasting anymore," he said.

The bulk of the households are in urban markets, he said, noting that Montreal probably has lowest level of cable or satellite penetration among large centres because those living near Mont-Royal mountain get good reception without it.

These viewers, if they don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV, will need a digital converter set-top box, or a newer TV with a built-in digital converter to access the digital feeds.

The change to over-the-air digital signals provides better picture and sound and also allows broadcasting in high definition. The move brings Canada in line with other countries such as the United States, which made the transition in 2009.

The CBC has been granted another year to finalize the transition from over-the-air analog signals and has said it may seek another extension.

In 2007, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission mandated that all TV broadcasters switch from analog signals to digital by this Aug. 31.

The CBC got a one-year extension from the CRTC to keep its analog signals running until Aug. 31, 2012, in 22 markets, primarily secondary ones. The CBC has said it plans to install a total of 27 digital transmitters across the country.

Jim Thompson, spokesman for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said the affected consumers haven't been properly prepared for the change.

"We think all hell's going to break loose when the transition happens because people generally don't know about it and when 'snow' starts to fly they're going to wonder what's going on," he said from Ottawa.

Thompson said the federal government is looking at a "multibillion dollar windfall" from the auction of the airwaves the TV stations won't be using anymore and that money could be used to help Canadians who can't afford cable fees or converter boxes. He noted the U.S. government ended up providing this kind of help to consumers.

The vacant airwaves will be auctioned off to Canada's wireless providers in the next year or so to meet the growing use of cellphones and provide consumers with faster networks that can handle more video and music.

"The feds are going to enjoy a huge profit. Meanwhile people who can't afford to pay for these extra charges are going to be left in the snow," Thompson said.

Brahm Eiley of the Convergence Consulting Group says providers aren't going out of their way to entice these subscribers to sign up.

"It's going to add a chunk of subscribers, but we're not seeing major offers," said Eiley, co-founder of the Toronto group. "You're not seeing the same kind of robust offers you were seeing south of the border."

So far there hasn't been any "meaningful cord cutting" when it comes cable or satellite services in Canada, but that is going to change soon, Eiley said.

"We think a lot of the cord cutting is going to cancel out the gains from the digital transition over 2011-2012."