How many channels can I get?
One of the most often asked questions is “how many stations are there in my area?” The answer varies, of course, with the larger metropolitan areas having the richest selection.
But there are a surprisingly large number of channels available even in the smaller markets. Oddly enough, there are more channels available than there are stations to broadcast them.
How is this possible? With analog technology one broadcast signal meant one “channel” or in modern parlance one “stream”. But with a digital signal, broadcasters suddenly gain room to roam.
Because of the way it is encoded, you can actually “multi-cast” a digital signal. That is broadcast more than one “stream” on the same carrier signal. These extra streams come through on your television receiver as “sub-channels,” with hyphens or decimals following the main channel designation as in 5-1, 5-2, 5-3…. and so on.
How many “sub-channels” can each station broadcast?
According to Charlie Allen, chief engineer for North Carolina public broadcasting (UNC-TV), the current practical limit is one high definition signal along with three standard definition signals for a total of four separate streams. This means four times the number of channels per station than with analogue. So if you had seven stations in your area before the digital transition, you could have as many as 28 channels now available.
And some broadcasters have gotten even more mileage by dropping the high def signal to 720 so the actual number of “channels” you receive could be even higher.
So what are the broadcasters doing with these “extra” channels?
It’s a mix right now. Many stations use the extra capacity for community affairs programming, twenty-four hour news and weather, and also some of the same things Cable does. Cable channels can even migrate to broadcast by “renting” unused space. In my area THIS network is broadcasting movies over the air twenty-four seven and there are several stations broadcasting a steady stream of nostalgia TV . The possibilities are endless.
The future for free TV is bright. The only dark spot is those annoying areas where the signal is weak, either because of obstructions or distance from the tower. Next time we will talk about how these problems can and will be overcome.