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The antennas will rise again by John Barber

Dec 6, 2008

Source : Globe & Mail

I was sitting on the couch in front of the television this week, playing with my BlackBerry while an announcer solemnly eulogized late cable czar Ted Rogers, when it suddenly struck me:

"Jon C. LeBlanc," I declared out loud, "is a great Canadian."

An unknown pioneer tinkering on a new frontier of communications technology - free high-definition television - Mr. LeBlanc is helping do today what Mr. Rogers once did to the communications dinosaurs of an earlier age. Thanks to him, the cable monopoly is doomed.

That, at least, is the fondest hope of those who frequent Mr. LeBlanc's Over the Air (OTA) Digital Television Web forum (at http://www.digitalhome.ca) while watching free HDTV. There are more of us than you might think in Toronto, an emerging epicentre of the coming OTA boom, courtesy of the CN Tower and Buffalo.

Thanks to Mr. LeBlanc, a.k.a. "stampeder," I now realize that the "UFO-type" antenna I recently installed in my attic was a waste of money. It picks up all the usual local channels, with more of them converting to crystal-clear digital almost every week, but it can't reach over the lake. What I need, and will soon acquire, is a proper outdoor antenna, just like the one I grew up with.

Thanks to stampeder's updated list of all the new digital signals that will soon be beamed into local airwaves from both sides of the border, I now know I can live without cable forever - as I have been struggling to do ever since Mr. Rogers introduced tamper-proof junction boxes decades ago.

Like all geeks and cranks, OTAers decry the conspiracy that suppresses awareness of the free HDTV miracle. While spreading the gospel, we notice that many lost souls, narcotized by the industry's aggressive introduction of new boxes and fees, don't even believe it exists. Their attitude is that cable, like evil itself, can never be overcome.

Others harbour a vague notion, based on the upcoming demise of analogue broadcasts in both Canada and the United States, that OTA itself is dying.

In fact, existing stations abandoning analogue are simultaneously converting to digital, and the extra bandwidth digital opens up is filling with new stations.

You likely won't hear it at the electronics store, where the clerks always have a new box or plan to sell along with TVs themselves, but just about every set sold today is perfectly capable of picking up digital signals.

Because free OTA broadcasts escape the processing cable companies apply, according to stampeder, they produce an even sharper and brighter HD picture than the pay signals.

I never felt the slightest guilt about stealing signals from cable as long as I was able to. Where did the cable company get them from - and how much did it pay? Apart from big spools of wire, its only asset was its licensed monopoly - a licence to print money. It was a classic parasite, the toll keeper on a vital new highway essential to everybody.

I was holding out until some new Adam Beck, the Ontario hero who nationalized electrical utilities a century ago, emerged to take on the cable companies. Given that their networks are so local and bounded, the obvious solution was to make them municipal utilities.

Now, it hardly matters. What Wi-Fi fails to accomplish, OTA will do. The antennas will rise again, spiky banners celebrating the ultimate negative option.

© Globe and Mail