10/05/2011 04:03 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Digital TV transition goes off without much drama, Heritage officials say

OTTAWA - Canada's transition from old analog to spiffy new digital-TV signals went off with a Y2K-like anti-climax.

Nobody was ever quite sure how many Canadians would be left completely without a TV signal after Aug. 31. The broadcast regulator guessed it was around 31,000.

And there was uncertainty over how many people with old TVs would be completely befuddled over how to make their sets digital-ready.

But data from the Department of Canadian Heritage and from a satellite company tasked with helping out those now without TV suggests the transition went off without much consumer drama.

"Overall, the transition went smoothly, not only from a technical perspective but also from a communications perspective," said Chaouki Dakdouki, Heritage's director of distribution and access policy.

"We worked closely with the broadcasting industry to make sure those who were affected received adequate information to prepare for the transition."

Actually, the federal government and the broadcasters came to the game fairly late. The Heritage and Industry ministers couldn't settle on who was responsible for the file for years. Warning advertisements only began in earnest at the beginning of 2011, despite years of prodding by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to take action.

Broadcasters grumbled about the cost to them for changing over their transmission towers — the CBC won a year's reprieve before having to power down some analog towers next year.

Dakdouki says there were 175,000 visits to a government website about the transition, and 10,000 calls to a Service Canada website.

Of those calls, nearly a quarter were about digital converter boxes. Another 18 per cent were calls about where to find local stations on the dial, and another 13 per cent for general information about the transition.

The rest of the inquiries ran the gamut from technical questions on how to hook up equipment to general ones about why the government had forced the transition.

The United States went through the same transition in 2009, and spent $1.34 billion on coupons that helped Americans purchase a digital converter box. Still, more than 314,000 people called into a government line on the day after the transition for help, 11,000 of those in New York City alone. The U.S. also struggled with digital signals that were not strong enough and certain areas without service.

"To be fair, we profited from the American experience because Canadians who were close to the border were already prepared, and of course doing it two years after the U.S., the broadcasters gained some technical experience," said Dakdouki.

So what of the estimated 31,000 Canadians that officials and consumer groups feared would wind up without any over-the-air service because there was no longer a working transmitter near their home?

Shaw Direct had entered into an agreement with the CRTC to provide free satellite service for five years to any Canadians facing that predicament, as part of the deal when they purchased Global Television.

But rather than being inundated with tens of thousands of calls, a spokesperson for Shaw said they've had only several thousand, and provided service to 300. The speculation is that some Canadians who were left with snow on their screens decided to finally pay for cable or satellite service themselves.

Another possibility is that some Canadians might not know they're affected until they lose their CBC analog signal next year. The people won't be able to opt in to the Shaw deal then — the deadline for applying is next month.

The new mystery is what the government will do with the analog band that it freed up with the transition. Industry Minister Christian Paradis did not commit to date for the spectrum auction when asked about it last week.

The spectrum will be hot property for cellphone and other technology companies, but there is also a debate about how to use the space for the public good too. A study published by Industry Canada in August delved into the issue of "white spaces," the unused portions of the spectrum between broadcast stations.

Those spaces could be used, with the use of special devices, to deliver Wi-Fi service to Canadians over a wider range — potentially serving more people in more remote areas. It could also drive down the cost of Internet service because of the lower delivery costs.

Looking at the experience in the U.S. and the U.K., the department found that using white spaces "has the potential to foster innovation and other applications that may result from the development of associated technologies."

Industry Canada is currently consulting on the issue.