Posts Tagged ‘FCC’

Goodbye, Free Cable TV

On November 28, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association filed comments urging the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable system operators who have gone 100% digital to make every channel on their systems subject to conditional access.

 

That means, of course, that even your local broadcast channels would require a cable box of some sort to be receivable. Presently, those channels sit ‘in the clear’ on many cable systems and can be tuned in with a late model digital TV just as easily as over-the-air channels.

 

The catch, of course, is that you won’t see any program guide information, although you might actually see the correct virtual channel numbers, like 3-1 or 7-1. But cable systems don’t pass broadcast stations Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data intact. Rather, they re-encode it into their own electronic program guide (EPG) systems.

 

Some cable system operators are already encrypting all digital channels. RCN comes to mind, and Cablevision has also applied for and gotten a waiver from the FCC to add conditional access to all of their digital channels.

 

It’s not really known how many people watch ‘free’ SD and HD digital cable channels at the present time. I know of a few subscribers who sign up for broadband and pick off the ‘clear’ digital channels that are present on the system. But that trick won’t last for long if the FCC changes the rules.

 

In an article on the Multichannel News Web site, the FCC “…conceded there was an issue with consumers with basic-only digital who accessed it without set-tops, or second or third sets without digital boxes that would now need new equipment to unscramble a signal.”

 

Apparently the FCC doesn’t see any downside to this position, stating, “We tentatively conclude that allowing cable operators to encrypt the basic service tier in all-digital systems will not substantially affect compatibility between cable service and consumer electronics equipment for most subscribers.”

 

How this will affect folks on the verge of ‘cutting the cord’ and going back to over-the-air TV remains to be seen, but it’s certainly going to provide more momentum to make the switch.

 

It wasn’t that long ago that you simply connected the cable directly to your old analog TV set and tuned in local channels you wanted to watch. Now, you’ll need (at the least) a digital terminal adapter (DTA) to watch those same channels, even though your late-model LCD or plasma TV can already receive them without a converter box.

 

Life is complicated, isn’t it?

A ‘Contrived’ Broadband Crisis, Indeed

A news story in the Wednesday 10/12 edition of the New York Times announced that the Federal Communications Commission is partnering with Best Buy’s Geek Squad to teach Americans how to use the Internet and take full advantage of broadband services that are available to them.

According to the story, only 68% of Americans are taking advantage of broadband access. The author of the article compares that rate unfavorably to South Korea, where over 90% of Koreans use available broadband services.

The source of that statistic is not provided. But it’s a big “Uh Oh!” for the FCC, whose chairman Julius Genachowski has been on a one-man crusade to convince everyone that we have a wireless broadband spectrum crisis in the United States, and that TV stations should willingly give up 120 MHz of UHF TV channels (basically everything above channel 31) to address this ‘crisis.’

His clarion calls have also been parroted by the head of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro. Neither individual has provided substantive proof to back up their claims, leading many of us industry analysts to believe that the impetus for this fabricated crisis is being driven by telecoms like Verizon and AT&T at the expense of millions of Americans who rely on free, over-the-air digital TV as a counter to high-priced cable TV subscription plans.

Three reasons were cited in the article for the reluctance or refusal of 32% of Americans to sign up for and take advantage of ‘available’ broadband services to surf the Web. The first was the cost of Internet services and the cost of computers. Number two was not knowing how to use a computer, and number three was ‘not understanding why the Internet is relevant.’

The plan is for Geek Squad staff to partner with service organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, Goodwill and 4-H in 20 cities to offer training in basic computer literacy. Microsoft is also on-board,  and will offer training in stores, schools, and libraries.

Now, I am not not by nature a political animal. But this seems like a waste of taxpayer money to me, particularly if Best Buy is deriving any benefit from the program.

Mr. Chairman: Have you not been reading the papers lately? (Sorry, I should have said ‘reading the on-line news sites.’) There are hundreds of thousands of newly-minted college graduates who cannot find jobs that pay decently, and are taking whatever work they can find to cover their monthly bills and student loans.

I’ll bet a sizable number are quite computer-literate and would be quite happy to instruct Americans about the ecstasies of ordering from Amazon, friending on Facebook, and streaming from Netflix, in return for a modest stipend from Washington, DC. Sort of a “Bits Corps” program, if you will. Why not put them to work? Best Buy doesn’t need the money.

I’d also like to mention that I know a few people who spend little or no time on the Internet, and have acquaintances that don’t even own a computer. They have no interest in surfing the Web and are quite happy functioning in what to them is a ‘normal’ world. Call them Luddites if you will, but they are co-existing with us ‘connected’ folks quite nicely.

It should not be the federal government’s job to make sure 100% of Americans know how to use a computer and do so on a regular basis. That is a choice for individual citizens to make. If Washington wants to establish an outreach program to help citizens get over a technology learning curve ‘hump’ so they can then make use of broadband connectivity, fine. But let it be run by volunteers in the finest spirit of our country, not government-subsidized employees of a big box retailer.

As for the ‘wireless spectrum crisis;’ we’ve called you out on it, Mr. Genachowski. It is a claim fabricated out of whole cloth and you should just drop it and leave what’s left of the free broadcast TV spectrum alone. Stop penalizing financially-pressed Americans by taking away one of the very few really good deals left out there…free HDTV.

Nuff said!

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!

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…

Goodbye Flo, We Hardly Knew Ye

Last Tuesday, Web outlet paidContent.com broke the story that Qualcomm was preparing to shut down its underperforming FLO TV business unit this coming December.

FLO TV, for those readers who’ve never heard of it (and that’s a large group, apparently), is a proprietary subscription mobile TV service that broadcasts nationwide on UHF channel 55. The service, also bundled as a ‘white label’ wholesale product to Verizon and AT&T subscribers, delivered several channels of TV programming specifically formatted for mobile and handheld devices.

Among the networks offered to FLO subscribers were Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, and CNN. The service first launched in 2006 as MediaFLO, and picked up Verizon (VCAST) and AT&T Mobile as re-sellers in 2007.

The FLO will be cut off in December…

Unfortunately for Qualcomm, FLO never caught on with Verizon and AT&T customers. Customers didn’t care to watch movies and long-form programming on cell phones, opting instead for ‘snacking’ on news and sports clips.

The result was a decision to market the service directly to consumers in the summer of 2009, with big box stores including Best Buy and Radio Shack offering a 3.5” LCD FLO TV receiver for $250, along with a $9 per month service contract with a three-year commitment.

The total out-of-pocket expense to watch 12 channels of programming – $570 – was not appealing to potential customers, particularly with the new ATSC MH mobile digital TV service getting off the ground. Why pay all that money when you could potentially access thousands of digital TV stations across the country for free?

Another strike against FLO TV: It didn’t offer any local news, weather, and sports broadcasts, which are the three biggest drivers for mobile media consumption. To make matters worse, smart phones were already providing Web access to video content providers like Netflix and Hulu, not to mention Web podcasts of sports, news, and weather programming; all on a flat rate data plan that also included email access. That’s not a battle Qualcomm could hope to win.

Ironically, FLO viewership numbers surged with ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup as the obituary was first being drafted back in June. But it was a case of too little, too late.

Nice try, but no cigar.

Qualcomm’s plans for what’s left of FLO TV and its nationwide network of over one hundred channel 55 TV transmitters (and in some markets, channel 56) aren’t clear yet. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hand-wringing coming from the San Diego corporate headquarters.

That’s because Qualcomm acquired the UHF spectrum relatively inexpensively earlier this decade, and now feels that the channels are worth at least $2 billion today, based on current spectrum auction results.  So they can sell off their real estate and still pocket a nice piece of change for their efforts, which among other things included relocating (at Qualcomm’s expense) a few UHF TV stations broadcasting on channel 55 prior to the analog TV shut-down in June of 2009.

Is there a market for subscription-based mobile digital TV? It would appear not. And there’s no guarantee that the free MH services just getting off the ground will be sustainable, either.

But in a day and age of customers feeling they are being ‘nickel-and-dimed to death’ for cable and satellite TV, Internet access, cellular phone service, and landline telephone service, FLO TV never stood a chance.