Posts Tagged ‘broadcasting’

Biting The Hand That Feeds You

If you haven’t tried the Mohu leaf antenna, it’s quite the handy gadget. Basically, it is a single-bay UHF TV collinear antenna made out of flexible conductors, and sealed in a waterproof thin plastic shell that resembles a placemat from a diner.

 

I’ve had the Leaf for a few months now and can say that it works very well for UHF TV reception – certainly no better or worse than any other collinear antenna system I’ve tried – and does a passable job on highband VHF DTV stations, if they are strong enough.  It’s reasonably priced at $45 and includes free shipping, so you really can’t go wrong with it.

Mohu's Leaf UHF antenna is super-thin and waterproof.

And here's a picture of the Leaf in action, mounted underneath a kitchen cabinet. (Not the way I would have done it, though!)

Now, here’s where things get hilarious. Apparently Mohu tried to run a thirty-second ad on Time Warner’s cable TV systems in Columbus, OH and Kansas City, MO; touting the benefits of free, over-the-air television. And TW said, “no!”

 

A resulting press release from Mohu reads, “The planned Leaf thirty second spot actually states that customers do not need “expensive cable service to watch HD programs” and that “most top-rated shows are broadcast free, over the air in full high definition.”

 

Hmmm. Think that had anything to do with Time Warner’s refusal to run the ad?

 

We may never know the whole story, but you can see the Mohu commercial here on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNtll-4fiis.

To the Federal Communications Commission: STOP! Enough, already!

I don’t normally get worked up by much that comes of out Washington, DC these days – it’s apparent that politicians have no limit to the levels they can sink to.

But the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing effort to reclaim broadcast TV spectrum in an attempt to ‘solve’ a so-called ‘wireless broadband crisis’ has reached absurd levels. And it is time to call them out on it.

Let me first set the table by stating that, a long, long time ago in a country far, far away, the FCC was actually a respected organization that had some actual engineering expertise. The FCC was created in 1934 to replace the Federal Radio Commission. As part of the 1934 Act that birthed the FCC, it was charged with “..regulating the airwaves in the public interest.” Not in the interests of big corporations like Verizon, AT&T, Qualcomm, or Google. In OUR interests.

The interpretation back then was that the radio spectrum (television hadn’t made its debut yet) belonged to the citizens of the United States. And the FCC would regulate how it was used to the benefit of all.

As new communication modes came into existence, the FCC was there to test-drive them and ultimately approve them for everyday use. FM broadcasting, television, Doppler radar, satellites, cellular phones – all became an integral part of our lives after thorough vetting by the FCC’s engineering staff, many of whom (like me) also held amateur radio licenses and could ‘walk the talk’ then it came to the latest technical terminology.

The FCC also regulated ‘common carriers,’ i.e. telephone companies. They approved tariffs and made sure rural areas had access to service. When television took off in the 1950s, the FCC had the foresight to add more channels in the UHF spectrum, and when TV manufacturers were reluctant to add tuners to their TV sets to enable viewing of those channels, the FCC simply made them do it with the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962. Otherwise, the nascent UHF television broadcast service would have died a premature death.

I got my first amateur radio license in 1970 after playing around with pirate AM and FM stations in high school. Back then, you didn’t mess with the FCC, and the appearance of one of their dreaded unmarked gray vans in your neighborhood meant they were on to your illegal radio station – so you pulled the plug, and fast.

In short, the FCC was the perfect umpire for our nation’s spectrum. They knew the technology inside and out, they tried to balance the needs of big corporations with the little guys, and they made sure everyone responsible for a single radio emission knew what the hell they were doing, and were held accountable for it.

Today? The FCC is a joke. I never thought I’d say that, but they have become a laughing stock. They are purely a political organization that is rapidly losing its best engineering talent, and exists merely to identify more spectrum that can be auctioned off to private interests so that Congress can continue to fill its insatiable appetite for money. (It turns out, we do have the best politicians money can buy, as Mark Twain once pointed out.)

Need proof of how low the FCC has sunk? How about the two rounds of ‘white space devices’ testing that the Office of Engineering Technology undertook a few years ago? (White space devices are low-power gadgets for wireless connectivity of media players, TVs, and other goodies in the home, and are intended to work in the UHF TV band.)

All of the devices failed both rounds of tests. Many did not detect strong active digital TV broadcasts on the same frequency! Some took an eternity to scan for active channels.

In short, these devices clearly weren’t ready for prime time. The old FCC would have sent their manufacturers packing in a hurry.

But the ‘new’ FCC? Why, they approved the concept,saying in effect, “Even though none of these gadgets ever worked correctly, you all seem to be nice people and pretty smart, so we’ll assume you can fix the problems.” This, after virtually every manufacturer of wireless microphones, lobbyists for theme parks, Broadway show producers, TV networks, the NAB, church groups, and professional AV associations lined up against white space devices.

So now, just two years after the completion of a difficult transition from analog to digital television – one that has brought us better picture quality (well, in most cases) and free HDTV to communities all over the country, and one that gave up channels 52 through 69 to public safety agencies and private interests, like Qualcomm’s failed FLO service – the FCC wants to take away another 120 MHz (20 channels) of UHF TV spectrum for its manufactured wireless broadband crisis.

To do that, over 600 TV stations currently operating in the UHF TV band will have to relocate. Unlike the analog to digital TV transition, there will be no opportunity to ‘simulcast’ on a new channel while winding down operations on the channel to be given up. These stations will simply have to shut down, install new transmitters and antennas, run coverage tests, and only then light up again.

In a classic case of Orwellian language, the FCC is saying that broadcasters will be invited to participate in a ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and decide if they want to give up their UHF channel in return for financial considerations. (Look how far we’ve come from the Federal Communications Act of 1934: The FCC is now offering  bribes to get broadcasters to move, or shut down!)

Anyone who has ever dealt with the government knows that the term ‘voluntary’ is meaningless. If the FCC doesn’t get enough broadcasters to move, then they’ll simply change the rules to get those channels one way or another. It’s a sham.

How will this affect free, over-the-air TV viewers? Well, if you live in Syracuse NY, ALL of your digital TV channels are UHF. Ditto for all but channel 7 in Boston and San Francisco , Huntsville AL, most channels in Denver, Portland ME, most channels in New Orleans, all but one channel in Salt Lake City – well, you get the idea.

The question no one is asking is this: Why not look somewhere else for new broadband spectrum? What about the old analog cellular phone band around 800 MHz? What about the hundreds of MHz the government has allocated to itself on a primary basis for whatever purpose?

You see, the UHF television band used to go all the way to channel 83. But it’s been whittled down several times since the 1950s, and in fact broadcasters have already given back 192 MHz of spectrum for other services in the past 40 years. In my eyes, they’ve done their part already, several times over.

The UHF TV band is better suited for digital TV for a number of reasons. It penetrates into buildings better than high-band VHF channels 7 to 13 (forget trying that with low-band VHF channels 2 through 6). It is easier to design compact, high-gain antennas for UHF digital TV reception. And antennas for the new portable MH digital TV receivers are quite small – only 5 inches is needed for a quarter-wave antenna @ 600 MHz, right around channel 35.

Did you know that ALL TV broadcasting moved to UHF channels in Great Britain in the 1970s after the move to color TV? UHF TV channels were deemed to be much more suitable for the regional broadcasting services. Made plenty of sense then, and makes plenty of sense now.

But there’s no use explaining any of this to the FCC, particularly its chairman, Julius Genachowski. To me, he is the consummate political animal and bureaucrat. He is bound and determined to go after TV broadcasters once again and chop off another limb to satisfy his friends at CTIA and the big telecoms. And you will suffer for it.

One of the few really good deals left to recession-weary Americans these days – who are being nickel-and-dimed to death with monthly service fees for cable, satellite, broadband, and mobile phones – is free, over-the-air digital TV and HDTV. Many of you who have ‘cut the cord’ or are contemplating doing so, relying on a mix of OTA TV programs and Internet video, are going to get screwed if this so-called ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and re-allocation goes through.

Apparently the FCC doesn’t care about saving Americans money, or supporting a diverse, 1700 station-strong free digital TV ecosystem that provides local news, weather, entertainment, sports – again, much of this in HDTV – without costing a dime. Nope, we desperately need more channels to fix our wireless broadband crisis!

Did you know that, in a candid moment last year, the head of Verizon said they weren’t using all of their channel capacity for wireless mobile phone and data service?

Did you know that the UHF TV spectrum is not the best choice for a wireless broadband service? (No, let’s instead move UPWARDS in frequency a few hundred megahertz.)

So, what are you going to to about it? Do you live in a TV market with mostly or all UHF channels? Do you enjoy watching free HDTV programs? Do you realize the disruption this FCC action will cause?

Then get on the phone, or email or write to your congressional representatives in the House and Senate and tell them to put a short leash on the FCC. Tell them to have a full spectrum inventory conducted and made available for public inspection.

Ask them why they would allow the FCC to take away one of the few good deals left to Americans during this time of economic stress, a TV service that more than 15% of the population relies on exclusively (over 30% among Hispanic households).

Ask them why the telecommunications industry gets what it wants, but the average John and Jane Doe – who were the supposed beneficiaries of the Communications Act of 1934 – are usually left holding the bag.

And tell the FCC this: STOP! Enough, already!

Cord-cutting: Yet More Perspectives

On the heels of the Consumer Electronics Association’s recent study of cord-cutters comes yet more research on the phenomenon. But this one should be taken more seriously than the CEA’s efforts because it focuses on a specific demographic – Generation Y, or those born in or after 1979.

 

‘Gen Ys’ are a critical group to watch. Their viewing habits and decisions are of tremendous interest to advertisers and marketers, as they currently occupy the lion’s share of the coveted 18-35 demographic.

 

Gen Ys literally grew up with computers and embrace new electronic gadgets more quickly than Gen Xers and us ‘old fogies’ in the Baby Boomer group. They are ‘connected’ with smart phones, laptops, and tablets, and are just as likely to search out video content on the Internet as watch it through cable or satellite TV services.

 

The study, conducted by research firm Ideas and Solutions! of Los Angeles, states that pay TV service providers are at risk of losing this group due to increasing price sensitivity to subscription television. According to a story in MediaPost, 69% of so-called ‘on the fence’ Gen Y cable customers are classified as ‘at risk’ for dropping service because it’s just too expensive.

 

This group spends nearly half of their TV viewing time watching Netflix and Hulu. Of the survey group that still favors pay TV, Netflix and Hulu viewing dropped to about 25%.

 

The survey results should surprise no one who knows Gen Y well. I have two ‘connected’ Gen Ys in my family (ages 25 and 20), and they’re always looking for ways to cut down on expenses. Some Gen Ys have enormous college loans and low-paying jobs (or are unemployed, or temping), so pay TV is an expensive luxury when compared to rent, groceries, and gas for the car (if they own one!).

 

This group is also more interested in broadband access than pay TV channel packages, and that’s already having an impact on the established subscription TV business.  A story in today’s Wall Street Journal quotes Time Warner CEO Glenn Britt as saying that broadband is rapidly becoming the company’s ‘anchor product,’ and that “…people are telling us that if they were down to their last dollar, they’d drop broadband last.”

 

Britt went on to point out that TW’s broadband customer count is closing in on its residential video customer count (9.5M vs. 12.3M in Q1 ’11). Also, TW has another 2M broadband-only customers, many of which have dropped cable for satellite services. You can be sure Gen Ys are well represented in the totals for broadband service.

 

The result is that TW may shift to more of a ‘single play’ marketing effort, pushing broadband at the expense of subscription TV and voice over IP (VoIP). The latter service is a harder sell to Gen Ys, as they rely on their mobile phones and often have no wireline telephones in their apartments and homes.

 

In my experience, Gen Ys who are informed about or become aware of free, over-the-air digital TV are quite happy to watch it as a substitute for pay TV, mixing it with YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. The question is; how many Gen Ys even know they can get free digital TV?

 

Maybe it’s time for a new outreach campaign by NAB, broadcast networks, and TV station ownership groups!

Reading Between The Lines

In a report released yesterday, the Consumer Electronics Association states that 10% of American households are either ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to cancel pay TV services this year, while an additional 14% are either ‘somewhat likely’ or ‘somewhat unlikely’ to cut the cord. 76% of those surveyed were in the ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ group.

While those numbers should give some pay TV operators a little cause for concern – maybe as an incentive to offer simpler, basic channel packages at lower costs – the CEA report then veered off in another direction.

The report, which you can read here, states that only 8% of all U.S. households rely exclusively on over-the-air (OTA) TV reception, a number that was immediately disputed by the national Association of Broadcasters, according to a story in Multichannel News.

The MCN story quoted CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro as saying, “Contrary to the National Association of Broadcasters’ assertions, antenna sales are falling and cord-cutters are not shifting to over-the-air television but rather to the Internet. The only cord being cut these days is the one to the antenna.”

NAB’s spokesman Dennis Wharton was quick to respond. “CEA has zero credibility when it comes to calculating over-the-air TV viewership. Knowledge Networks has stated that over-the-air exclusive homes are more than 14% and rising. We trust an unbiased research firm over a survey paid for by CEA,” he replied.

Both my own experience and national news stories about cord-cutting have clearly shown that free, over-the-air TV is a key component of the cord-cutting experience. Why? Because it’s doggone difficult to watch sports and prime time TV shows in HDTV over a typical Internet connection, that’s why! And of course, OTA TV is free to viewers. So it is often combined with broadband access as part of the kiss-off to Comcast or Time Warner.

As it turns out, CEA has an obvious bias here. (Wow – this has been a bad week for objective research!) In a press release that came out earlier today, CEA announced that its Innovation Movement and Small Business Council would bring a ‘small business message’ to Capitol Hill.

The message? That small businesses “…run a gauntlet of new laws, new regulations and new costs that can put them out of business. Instead of imposing additional burdens, policymakers should be creating small businesses to invest, expand and create additional jobs.”

So where’s the bias? In the fifth paragraph of the press release, CEA states:

“Online, CEA’s Innovation Movement will be hosting a Virtual Lobby Day for its 114,000-plus members to encourage them to act on one key issue affecting small businesses: incentive spectrum auctions. CEA Innovation Movement members will be called to ask their congressional representatives to authorize the FCC to move forward with “incentive auctions,” which would provide broadcasters the ability to repurpose their frequencies through a spectrum auction in exchange for proceeds from auction revenues. Broadcasters could participate on a voluntary basis and purchasers could redeploy the spectrum for wireless broadband that could generate $33 billion for the U.S. Treasury and would allow endless opportunities for innovation in small business. “

A-HA! Apparently the primary motivation of this Innovation Movement is to pressure congress into selling off more broadcast TV spectrum. How, exactly, does that benefit a so-called ‘small business’ like mine? Seems to me such auctions would be far more useful Verizon and AT&T more than anyone else, and they’re as far removed from ‘small businesses’ as you can get.

According to Shapiro, “Using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense. Congress should pass legislation to allow for incentive auctions so free market dynamics can find the best purposes for underused broadcast spectrum, such as wireless broadband.”

OK, connect the dots with me: (1) CEA’s members want more spectrum for broadband and other WiFi gadgets. (2) They think terrestrial broadcasters are vulnerable now. (3) So, CEA commissions a study that shows only while a small number of people are dropping or planning to drop pay TV service, these cord-cutters are NOT moving to over-the-air reception. No, they are instead turning to Internet-delivered video services. (4) Therefore, the country needs more bandwidth for broadband delivery of (among other things) video content, and less bandwidth for broadcast TV programs.

And I thought the recent Digital Entertainment Group survey of 3D TV trends was self-serving!  While I have no issue with the small number of cord-cutters the CEA identified, I simply cannot believe these ‘cutters’ would turn away from free HDTV programming for their new LCD and plasma TVs.

The CEA’s bias is clear now. In the last decade, they fought the digital TV tuner mandate, calling it an undue burden on TV manufacturers. Once the DTV transition got rolling, however, CEA did a flip-flop and showered praise on the FCC’s decision to move to a digital TV future, bringing free HDTV to millions of American homes.

Now, CEA has flipped again and says that free OTA TV is a dinosaur, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history in favor of wireless broadband in the UHF television band (a concept that is still on shaky ground technically).

I’m surprised the folks at CEA haven’t gotten whiplash from constantly reversing their positions. But it’s pretty clear now who’s really behind the curtains, calling the shots for CEA and also putting pressure on the FCC these days.

The question is; how many Americans still care that they can watch free HDTV anymore?

I’ll bet it’s a lot more than 8% of all U.S. households…

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Whether you like the man’s music or not, there can be no argument that it has had a profound impact on countless artists and bands ever since his first album was released 49 years ago.

 

One of my favorite Dylan tunes is the aforementioned “Times,” and it couldn’t be more appropriate in 2011. The world of media distribution is turning on its head, thanks to the Internet and digital technology.

 

Consider these recent stories. At a meeting of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) last week in Dallas, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski emphatically stated that there is no need for further debate on the topic of spectrum shortages. Quote: “Any objective observer would have to say that the spectrum crunch debate has been put to rest.”

 

Genachowski, of course, has been advocating that TV broadcasters give up yet another chunk of their spectrum that would be re-assigned for wireless broadband services (something TIA members like Verizon and AT&T are salivating over).

 

Obviously Genachowski feels that the importance of free, over-the-air television has greatly diminished, and that ‘broadband for everybody’ should be the modus operandi going forward, using ‘voluntary’ spectrum auctions to free up UHF TV channels for his pet project.

 

Aside from some technical reasons why using UHF TV channels for wireless broadband isn’t a good idea, Genachowski is clearly overlooking other spectrum that could just as easily be put to the same purpose, such as the 800 MHz analog cellular phone band. (Betcha didn’t know those channels were still in use!) Or, how about the hundreds of MHz reserved exclusively for government use? A 120-MHz bite out of that would hardly be noticed.

 

The point, however, is that Genachowski feels the availability of free digital TV (and free HDTV, I should add) isn’t nearly as important as having broadband access to Netflix streaming, or to eBay auctions, or to the Huffington Post, or to ESPN.com.

 

And that is a sea change in the thinking of the FCC from 1934, when it was created from the old Federal Radio Commission to ‘regulate the airwaves in the public interest,’ to 2009 when the digital TV transition was complete, and the FCC had largely devolved into a glorified spectrum auction house.

 

Wireless isn’t the only place where the old order of media distribution is under siege. Two recent reports from the Digital Entertainment Group and SNL Kagan clearly show that America’s love affair with the DVD is over, and that more and more households are embracing a ‘cloud’ model for accessing and watching movies and TV shows.

 

Kagan’s study revealed that wholesale revenue from DVDs (not Blu-ray discs) in 2010 dropped almost 44% from 2009, even though 2010 was a decent year at the box office. This decline in DVD sales has been evident for nearly six years now, and is picking up speed – Kagan calculates that the annual compound negative growth rate for DVD revenue is over 13% in the past five years.

 

Granted, DVD rental income from $1-per-night kiosks was up last year, and video-on-demand (including Netflix streaming) is in a strong growth mode. Even so, overall consumer spending on entertainment declined almost 11% in 2010, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

 

The important thing to note here is that streaming is growing by leaps and bounds. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, Netflix now has more subscribers than Comcast (over 23 million). And Netflix streaming is largely what’s driving sales of connected Blu-ray players, not sales and rentals of Blu-ray discs. There’s that ‘cloud’ thing, again!

 

The problem with Netflix streaming is that the revenue that goes back to Hollywood studios doesn’t even come close to replacing the cash cow that DVDs once represented. And that drop-off in revenue will definitely be a sticking point when each studio’s contracts with Netflix are renegotiated in t near future.

 

On the hardware side of things, we’re seeing an accelerating shift away from traditional notebook computers to touchscreen tablets and eBook readers. A recent news story stated that women, who generally read more books than men, are flocking to Barnes & Nobles’ color Nook reader and are also reading more magazines than ever before on said reader.

 

That fact, plus the embedded but largely hidden Android OS that has the potential to turn the Nook into a full-blown media tablet, may be the reason why John Malone’s Liberty Media is making a play for Barnes & Noble. Last Thursday, Malone’s company announced a $1B offer for 70% of the company. The bid price is about $17 per share, which represents a 20% premium over the current stock price.

 

Why would Malone, who made his fortune in the cable TV business, want to own the largest bookseller in the United States? Because he can deliver all sorts of content – print or otherwise – directly to Nooks through a ‘cloud’ structure. (And he might need some of those UHF TV frequencies to do it!)

 

There you have it. TV and movies everywhere, anytime (just not on optical discs). A media center in your coat pocket. Cloud servers set up by everyone from Amazon to Apple. Wireless broadband access to everything, even if it means you have to pay Verizon and AT&T to watch TV programs, over the air, with an antenna. And the increasing likeliness that you will have to pay to watch HDTV content, wherever it comes from.

 

The times, they are indeed a-changin’…