Posts Tagged ‘NAB’

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!

NAB 2010: A Show in Transition

Some of the big questions facing attendees as their flights landed in Las Vegas were these: Can NAB survive? Will it evolve into something different? Is it even that important to attend NAB anymore?

The answer to all three questions is “yes.” Even though attendance was still down from 2008 (NAB claimed 83,000 ‘officially;’ my guesstimate was more like 55,000 to 60,000), there were plenty of companies in attendance with lots of cool products to check out.

That said, the show is undergoing a rapid transformation away from a traditional ‘broadcasting’ show to a mix of InfoComm and CES – hot new products for professionals. Of course, 3D was all over the place. But so was networked video, which dominated the upper and lower South Hall exhibit areas.

Booths were smaller this year, and that’s not going to change any time soon…not when the typical booth is showing products that have price tags in the hundreds and low thousands. Contrast that with NAB shows 15 years ago, when most of the price tags had three and four zeros in them!

You know attendance was off when this was one of the largest booths in the Central Hall!

On the other hand, the alternative wasn’t too attractive…

The smaller booths and lower number of exhibitors resulted in wider aisles and less traffic – a plus. But it also resulted in NAB placing the main registration area smack in the middle of the Central Hall, something I’ve never seen before.  And there was plenty of wide-open space at the end of that hall, as well in the North and South Halls.

Can NAB be staged in three halls? Absolutely! And can you see everything you need to see in three days? Try two days. (Thursday has become ‘exhibitor bonding day,’ to quote a fellow editor.) I could have covered my beat in two days if necessary.

THE TRENDS

Not surprisingly, 3D was a big topic this year, although not to the same extent as it was at CES. The SMPTE/ETC/EBU Digital Cinema Summit focused entirely on 3D for both days, and I was fortunate enough to deliver one of the papers to a jammed room of 500+ attendees.

Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Canon, Grass Valley, AVID, Doremi, Harris, Evertz, and Ross Video were just some of the companies showing 3D products in Vegas. Those products ranged from 3D monitors and cameras to 3D workflow (acquisition, editing, post, effects, and playout) software and hardware.

Sony’s LM4251TD 42-inch LCD monitor uses micropolarizers for passive 3D viewing.

Other specialized 3D brands were in attendance, too. TD Vision, Miracube, Mistika, and HDlogix had nice exhibits in the South Hall, down the street from Grass Valley. Smaller companies like Cine-tal occupied the 3D Pavilion nearby, while Motorola and Ericsson showcased 3D transport and format recognition products upstairs.

Although the consumer TV market is seeing a big push towards active-shutter 3D TVs and monitors, the emphasis at NAB was on passive 3D viewing (cheaper glasses, more expensive displays). JVC, Hyundai, and LG all manufacture them, and there were plenty of folks standing around with RealD X-pol eyewear watching the demos.

The projector guys were on top of things, too. projectiondesign showed a stacked pair of 3-chip 1080p lightboxes in the Mistika booth, using linear polarized glasses. HDI showed a 100-inch, 1080p LCoS rear-projection TV in the HDlogix booth, also using X-pol glasses. Christie also had suitable 3D projection systems out for inspection.

There were also some demos that left me scratching my head, such as Canon’s dual-projection X-pol 3D demo, using a pair of REALiS WUXGA (1920×1200) LCoS projectors. While it worked well, it requires two separate projectors and outboard 3D filter holders – too klunky! (A Canon rep told me that was because of the 60 Hz frame rate limitation on the internal video processor.)

Well, it IS 3D, but I doubt Canon will sell very many of these rigs…

Broadband video and IPTV were also big this year. This market for MPEG-4 AVC over Ethernet, fiber, or private data networks is exploding, and encoder companies such as Adtec, Vbrick, Harmonic, Ericsson, Harris, Motorola, and Digital Rapids were showing a full range of compatible products.

Sezmi also occupied a booth at the show. This company has a unique selling proposition – a set-top box that receives both terrestrial (read: free) digital TV and selected cable channels carried on secondary terrestrial channels. It also accesses a video-on-demand server through broadband connections (SDTV only) and has a customizable program guide for each user.

While not technically broadband, the nascent MH broadcast format was in abundance at NAB. MH uses MPEG-4 AVC coding in multiple streams with IP headers to send low-resolution video to handheld receivers, such as mobile phones and combo PDA/receiver products. MH is catching on in popularity with broadcasters, who see it as a more sensible alternative to simple multicasting of secondary channels that very few people may be watching.

ATSC MH on an iPhone? Brilliant! (There’s an app for everything!)

MY PICKS

After three days of walking around, I came up with a list of “finds” that I’ll share here. These are all products that represented clever thinking, breakthrough technology, and/or new price points. Some were easy to spot; others required quite a bit of digging. But they all made the trip to Lost Wages worth it (and that’s saying a lot, considering how airlines jam you in like sardines these days!).

TV Logic: This manufacturer of LCD broadcast monitor showed the world’s first active-matrix OLED broadcast monitor (unless you think Sony’s press announcement hit first, which it didn’t.) The LM-150 ($6,200) uses a LG Display 15-inch OLED panel with 1366×768 pixel resolution and come equipped with all the expected niceties including markers, crop marks, caption displays, over/underscan, and HD/SDI, HDMI, and analog video jacks. There’s also a 3D version in the works (TDM-150) that will sell for about $7,700.

This was the coolest product at the show. But will it REALLY last 30,000 hours?

Ericsson: In addition to a host of MPEG-4 and IPTV encoders, the ‘big E’ also showcased an innovative, iPad-like LCD touchscreen remote control/video viewer. Dubbed the IPTV remote, this product can dial up video from broadband, cable, satellite, and even your home network. Not only that, it can monitor weather sensors and your home security system. (Sound much like a Crestron product?) The IPTV remote will not be offered for sale at retail. Rather, it’s intended to be a content provider offering.

Christie: Have you seen their MicroTiles yet on the Colbert Report? These innovative ‘mini’ DLP projection cubes use LED light engines to power 800×600 DMDs (the actual working resolution is 720×540) and measure about 12” x 16.” They can be configured in just about any format you wish, including floor and ceiling projection, and up to 1024 can be driven at one time. The LED light source is specified to last over 60,000 hours. Think of LED-powered LEGOÔ blocks, and you’ve got the concept.

And YOU thought iPads were all the rage…

SmallHD: It wasn’t easy finding these guys behind the Sony booth, but they’d come up with a focus assist monitor for video and still cameras that they claim is the world’s smallest HD video monitor. The actual size is about 5.6 inches and the glass is WXGA (1280×800) LCD. It comes in two flavors – one for digital SLRs ($899) and one with SDI input ($1199). The monitors are an inch thick, weigh 10 ounces, and mount to hot shoes.

Z3 Technology: I found this booth on my last pass through the South Hall, and it was worth the stop. They showed the Z3-MVE-01 MPEG encoder, a compact box that codes HD up to 1920×1080 resolution using H.64 High Profile (up to 30Hz), with Ethernet and ASI outputs. Input compatibility includes composite, component, HDMI, DVI, and HD-SDI video…all for $5,000.

JVC’s 46-inch X-pol monitor always drew a crowd.

Adtec: I didn’t expect to see an HDMI-to-QAM modulator at the show, but that’s exactly what Adtec pulled out for me. The HDMI2QAM is a dual-channel design that encodes anything from the HDMI inputs (yes, they are HDCP-compliant) to a pair of quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) channels, using MPEG-2 encoding. The modulation format is selectable between 64-QAM (SD), 128-QAM (not widely use), and 256-QAM (HD). Bit rates are constant and optimized for each mode (i.e. 38.8 Mb/s for each HD channel).

 

Cydle: This new start-up demonstrated an app for iPods and iPhones that allows viewing of ATSC MH (A/153) video. Along with it comes the i30,  a battery-powered docking station with built-in antenna (UHF). This means that your ‘i-whatever’ has two batteries to draw from, so if you run low on talk power, simply switch to the i30 battery. Both can charge simultaneously. Cool!

Sezmi’s personal program guide rivals TiVo for user-friendliness.

Panasonic: I’ve seen it before at CES, but it now has a model number. The company’s first production camcorder now goes by the moniker AG-3DA1 and is yours for the low, low price of just $21,000. (Well, all things are relative, I guess.) The camera weighs about 6 and a half pounds and uses a pair of 2.l07 MP sensors (full 1920×1080) to record 1080i and 720p HD content to SD memory cards. Convergence and horizontal and vertical displacement are fully adjustable.

Panasonic gets another mention for the AG-AF100, which they claim is the world’s first Micro 4/3-inch (1.33:1) HD camcorder. That’s a big deal because the 4/3” format matches the coverage area of 35mm film frames…which means you can use standard 35mm film camera lenses to get effects like shallow focus, soft focus, and vignettes. The camera records to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards using the AVCHD format and supports 1080i/p and 720p formats, including 23.98/24/25 Hz.

Sony gets extra credit for announcing the world’s second (or first) AM-OLED professional video monitor. The PVM-750 ($3,850) is a bit smaller than TV Logic’s offering at 7.4 inches (16:9), and is not quite full HD resolution at 960×540 pixels. (Not that you’d notice on such  small screen!)  The PVM-750 has 3G HD-SDI, HDMI, and composite video inputs, the full range of adjustments from tally and markers to blue screen mode and AC/battery power operation. No word on lifespan of the display, but Sony uses small molecule (SM) OLED technology, as does LG Display.

LP Technologies rounds out my list with one of those ‘too good to be true’ products: An LCD-based 9 kHz to 3 GHz spectrum analyzer with USB 2.0 interface, built-in preamp, and Ethernet connectivity for remote monitoring. Sorry, no internal battery pack!) The USB hook-up can be used to save data in the Excel format, while the internal memory can tore 900 different waveforms. The display is a 6.4” 640×480 (VGA) LCD type. And the cost? Just $4,500…

Stick one of these on a Canon 5D MK II, and you can shoot an entire episode of ‘House!’ (No kidding!)