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Digital-quality broadcast television

Indisputably, boating is not the escape it used to be. Just count the television antennas at any marina.

Indisputably, boating is not the escape it used to be. Just count the television antennas at any marina. Statistics show that most boats with an enclosed cabin have a television, whether it’s a small 12-volt camper model or a state-of-the-art flat screen. Weekend warriors and long-term cruisers alike bring their television habits with them nowadays when they head to the water — especially if they’ve got kids.

Satellite television antennas are now common on powerboats larger than 35 feet, and manufacturers such as KVH are reaching out to the owners of sailboats and smaller powerboats with ever more compact products. Price is a function of an antenna’s satellite-tracking prowess. Those that allow you to watch television while swinging at anchor sell for at least $500, while the smallest marine antenna for viewing under way costs more than $3,000.

Worth the dollars? These systems deliver 160 channels viewable on either digital or high-definition televisions up to 200 miles offshore. Walk the docks at any boat show, and you will see this DTV and HDTV technology writ large in nearly every other saloon and stateroom.

But what if boaters could watch 30 channels on HDTV — some of America’s most popular programming — with an antenna that cost less than $300 and without paying a monthly subscription fee? The adage about everything old becoming new again applies here. Often ignored in discussions of television afloat is old-fashioned broadcast television, except that it’s not so old-fashioned anymore. It even has a new sci-fi sounding name; it’s been dubbed “digital terrestrial TV.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to watch ‘House’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’ in the same quality as a DVD or better, and doing it with a $60 antenna rather than one that costs $8,000?” says Mark Aiken, director of advanced technology for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Hunt Valley, Md., company that owns 58 “terrestrial” television stations across the United States. “You’re not going to get your pay-per-view, and you’re not going to get the channels on satellite and cable, but you’re going to get your network stations.”

The difference between broadcast television before and broadcast television now is twofold: up to five times higher quality images and quadruple the number of stations. And for that, you can thank the U.S. government, which ordered television stations to broadcast DTV in parallel with existing analog signals. The Federal Communications Commission has ordered the television industry to cease all analog broadcasts after Feb. 17, 2009.

The FCC says ending analog will free up parts of the “scarce and valuable broadcast spectrum,” which it will redirect for public safety and other wireless services. Meanwhile, the efficiency of DTV allows each station to divide its allocated 19 megabits of bandwidth into several subchannels. Instead of just having a Channel 7, for example, viewers may also able to turn to 7.2, 7.3 or 7.4.

Aiken says boaters in the upper Chesapeake Bay can watch up to 60 channels in the Baltimore-Washington market. There are 26 terrestrial broadcasts to the boat-rich Tampa Bay, Fla., area and nearly 30 available in densely populated South Florida.

A terrestrial station often will allocate one of its subchannels entirely to local weather, and some stations have opted to devote a subchannel to a real-time readout from the nearest Nexrad Doppler weather radar. This is another freebie from the point of view that both the WxWorx and The Weather Channel sell a radio-based service that allows boaters to view the same Nexrad in real time on a PC or chart plotter. Both of these subscription services also require $900 to $1,700 upfront for hardware and software, and while both offer a host of other valuable weather information, the sexiest feature in their inventory is that live radar.

Fred Platt of Dantronics in Boca Raton, Fla., says his company sells more than 6,000 marine TV antennas a year, most of which resemble little flying saucers on masts and cabin tops. Prices range from $200 to $545. These antennas are omnidirectional, so they don’t need the stabilization and tracking features that make satellite antennas both bigger and more expensive.

“A lot of people assume the only way you’re going to get high-definition TV is with cable TV or satellite,” says Platt. “But as we go digital, satellite TV is going have a lot more competition from broadcast.”

In anticipation of analog television’s 2009 demise, Platt says, Dantronics is developing a marinized 12-volt digital converter. Unless you have a digital television, you will need one of these set-top boxes to interpret the digital signal for your analog television. Converters are available now, but only in 115-volt AC.

Television executive Norman Stein, who has been boating for more than 30 years, envisions the boat of the future as one that is totally connected, able to get advice from the factory 24/7 at the speed of broadband Wi-Fi. Because an on-board computer is central to this vision, Stein also advocates using a PC or laptop to watch high-definition television aboard smaller and midsize vessels, such as his 32-foot Tiara.

To make a laptop a television you need a USB adapter about the size of a paperback book; it costs less than $200. These adapters have small antennas of their own but work better when connected to an external antenna.

“Regardless of the size of your boat, if you have a laptop and a dongle, you can make the laptop an over-the-air HDTV receiver. You don’t have to be a mega-yacht to get digital or HDTV television,” Stein says.

(More than 120,000 boats from 25 to 40 feet have televisions on board, only 2 percent of which receive satellite broadcasts, according to figures from the National Marine Manufacturers Association.)

KVH is a leading manufacturer of stabilized marine satellite television antennas and recently introduced its smallest antenna, the M3. With a 14.5-inch diameter, the dome-shaped antenna is meant for that huge market of midsize vessels. KHV spokesman Chris Watson doesn’t expect terrestrial television to be much of a factor in purchasing decisions; he says an antenna such as the M3 “makes a ton of sense for boaters.”

“The new terrestrial services aren’t any better than their analog predecessor in terms of coverage, so I don’t see this as a new competitive threat to our satellite TV products,” Watson says. “In addition, digital terrestrial TV is also largely still limited to local channels, while many people will still desire the variety of satellite.”

To boaters on a budget (and those would-be escapists) there is a message. Picking an on-board television system should take into account where a family does its boating, who is usually on board, and the crew’s TV-viewing habits. Some boaters might be perfectly happy getting their fix on a system that costs hundreds rather than thousands of dollars. On the other hand, Bahamas-bound mariners won’t be watching “The Sopranos,” let alone “Jeopardy,” without paying the extra.

Freelance writer Peter Swanson is a frequent Soundings contributor who has cruised extensively from New England to the Caribbean aboard his ketch-rigged MorganOutIsland 41.