The first part of this century has been spent discussing the eventual migration to HDTV, and with the February 17, 2009 deadline less than a year away, educational facilities are facing a challenge: how to keep their television distribution systems from going dark without breaking the bank.
This is especially tricky at the K-12 level, where resources tend to be more modest than at colleges and universities. The prospect of replacing hundreds-or, depending on the school district-thousands of analog televisions with digital units is financially prohibitive.
As boards conclude the current year and review their budgets, it's likely that a large portion of schools will adopt a 'hybrid' configuration, which enables them to continue using their analog TV sets by converting the incoming digital signal back into analog, or taking the digital 8VBS signal in its native format and transforming it into a Quam signal.
While this softens the budgetary blow somewhat, schools, whether they realize it or not, are racing against the clock. "We are deploying thousands of these systems throughout the nation, but there are still a lot of schools out there saying, 'We don't know what to do yet. We don't know when we are going to make that decision,'" said Steve Deasey, sales representative at Toner Cable Equipment.
The threat of dark screens when the first bell rings on February 18 will likely produce a surge in activity for those serving the educational market in the coming months, as 2008-2009 budgets are tapped for infrastructure improvements.
While this is good for business, the sheer volume of orders could produce delivery issues. "At the end of the summer, or at the end of the year, there will be an onslaught of ordering product," said Bob Peterson of Blonder Tongue. "Whether it's a TV set manufacturer, a tuning manufacturer or whatever, there will be an onslaught and no one will be able to handle the demand."
This issue won't just affect manufacturers, Deasey underlines. "You can get all of the equipment, but now you have to install it," he said, adding that some school districts boast as many as 400 or 500 buildings. "It's not a matter of just walking in and throwing a switch-you've got to replace product and rewire the head end. Time is also a factor when it comes to installation, because many of these schools do not have the manpower to install this equipment."
This puts systems contractors in the position of educating the educators: there is no time than the present to approach school clients to emphasize the need to move on the transition to digital. Peterson notes that Blonder Tongue has created a PowerPoint presentation for this purpose, and the company will share it, provided that it receives proper credit.
"If contractors have a relationship with a school district, they should go to that district and say, 'What are your plans?'" Peterson said. "If they don't have any plans and they are confused about what to do, they need to become educated."
One component of the HD transition that has started to become less expensive is related to infrastructure: whereas fiber optic cabling was once viewed as being too fragile and costly as a "mainstream" solution, the price of copper wiring is driving people to reconsider.
"Over the last couple of years, the cost of copper has gone through the roof, and the cost of the glass-the fiber cabling-has come down," said Paul Seiden, director of sales at Communications Specialties, Inc. (CSI). "The cost of the optical components-in particular, the lasers-has dropped significantly over the last four or five years, and now when we are starting to propose fiber transmission. It's become very cost competitive against copper, if not cheaper, in some cases."
Fiber also promises to maintain signal quality over long distances, which is a necessary feature on campuses where buildings are sometimes spread out over several miles. "In a copper environment, the signal quality degrades as a function of distance," said Ed Miskovic, vice president of sales and marketing at Meridian Technologies in Elmont, NY. "If I want to go that further distance, I'm going to have to put in some better cabling-some Cat-6 or good quality coax-which means it's going to cost more and it's going to be heavier."