Category Archives: Commentary

BPL’s Off–What’s Next?

Technically, Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) always seemed to me the electrical equivalent to pushing rope. The San Diego Gas & Electric experiment on the two blocks that surrounded my home in 2006 involved an impossibly expensive array of wireless and wired transceivers and multiple high and low voltage couplers. All that gear was required to get the VHF signal a block or two at the most before it faded and required a repeater and more coupling and decoupling gear. See, VHF doesn’t travel well down an unbalanced open wire. The HF signals used in an earlier pilot didn’t do much better.

The poor closed transmission qualities of the power lines meant they radiated most of their energy. While the industry worked hard to protect incumbent users of the spectrum–read ham radio and land mobile emergency services–the lines radiate so much that there really is no way for them to reliably comply with the original FCC Part 15 rules unless amended to specifically excuse the industry. In local trials, we measured little radiation on frequencies used by hams and the state. The worst emissions were produced on parts of the AM band by one of the power supplies used for a BPL modem. SDG&E involved hams, emergency communications users, and me as representative of broadcasters in an effort to monitor their BPL experiments, and that was a commendable move. Nonetheless, they energized power lines and radiated RF.

BPL has reminded me of the huge coal plant 16 miles from the Grand Canyon. The haze harmed the view of the canyon from the day it opened, but why should we purposefully foul the air anywhere if it isn’t necessary? Your government backed an inherently harmful technology when it could just as easily require scrubbers or not allow the burning of coal for power at all. It’s legalized pollution.

Follow the Money

Terry Snow, local engineering coordinator for SDG&E, told me they ended local BPL trials in mid-2007 and removed the equipment soon thereafter. The utility determined that BPL simply isn’t economically feasible.

Why is this? BPL as an internet service alternative for consumers, as envisioned by non-technical regulators, doesn’t pencil out. All the stuff required to modulate power lines designed for 60 Hz service simply is too expensive to supply a few homes in a neighborhood. The FCC said they wanted a competitive internet service for consumers to keep the price down, but they assumed the science would work economically. It hasn’t.

So how do utilities with BPL now, like those in Manassas, Virginia, make it work? First, you have to ignore those who complain about spectrum interference. The American Radio Relay League, the ham radio lobby, has battled the FCC for years to get them to enforce their own interference rules. Manassas hams are screaming for relief from the blanket of noise.

Second, BPL isn’t about internet service for you and me–it’s about advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). The derivative of AMR, or Automatic Meter Reading, is the technology that allows utilities to measure and control how much power you use at what times of the day. In fact, Terry Snow says, the California PUC specifically forbade them from selling internet service to the public.

You see, companies like those in Manassas can’t afford BPL unless it is subsidized by rate increases for all electric power users, and  the CPUC said they could use the rate increase for AMI. But they aren’t allowed to charge all consumers for a service that would benefit only those few consumers willing to pay an additional premium.

Power generating plants and lines are not only very expensive to install, nobody wants them in their neighborhood. And once the systems are in, the power companies don’t want to have to rebuild them because you are using more power for your new spa or third TV. Peak power is the problem. Utilities are very good at providing power for your normal needs day after day. But when it gets hot around here, they can just barely supply enough juice at 4 PM.

The utilities have asked us to conserve power, but nothing works as well as good, old-fashioned supply and demand. If the electric company charges, say, 10 times as much for power delivered at 4 PM on a hot day than they do for power delivered at 4 AM, people will be more mindful of their air conditioning settings and run the dishwasher when demand and rates are lower. It makes sense if you believe in classical capitalism. But remember that this is a regulated monopoly. Utilities like demand pricing because they can profit from figuring the rates in such a way that the median charge for energy increases.

It turns out that the cost of implementing AMI for the general public is big. So big, the utility group UCAN says the best case scenario is for a 25-year payback, and worst-case has the costs just never paid off. UCAN suggests for peak demand control a series of measures from conservation incentives to large-user controls to voluntary peak cutoff systems. I had a radio subcarrier receiver in an apartment in Utah that the utility could use to cutoff the air conditioner if peak demand in the neighborhood grew too high. At Bay City TV, we participate in a peak generation program, running a generator and taking our facility off-line by request when demand gets dangerously high.

SDG&E and other utilities continue to explore peak demand controls and AMI, but the definitive method of measuring and controlling electrical power delivery hasn’t been determined or implemented yet.

SBE36.ORG Ten Years Later

In July of 1997, Dave Biondi in Texas offered free webhosting for SBE chapters wanting to create a site. Having wanted to learn HTML and the various allied technologies, I went for it. Netscape’s browser came with a decent HTML editor, so with a Sams book in my lap, I created the first chapter web page. We registered an independent website a couple of years later, still using the Texan.net servers. That first web page still exists, though the logo has been updated and the site is now hosted in San Diego at Aplus.net.

The idea of informing the San Diego broadcast engineer about the SBE chapter and local industry news seemed obvious. At that time, Ron Foo and John Barcroft at KGB were working hard publishing the monthly SBE chapter print newsletter. I wanted more local content and eventually to help relieve them of some of the laborious processes of composing, copying, folding, stapling, stamping, and addressing. Some chapters, like Portland, do such a consistently good job of covering local events that it just seemed possible to do that here. And the intended audience was supposedly wired, so wouldn’t it also be possible to set-up web and e-mail distribution?

In 1997, I had a brand new screaming 160 MHz Macintosh Performa 6360 and quickly bought the BBEdit text editor and some cheap graphics software. With some Apple Quicktime macro programming, I could create a webpage from plain text paragraphs in seconds. I created web banner ads for our sponsors and at one time had 24 in circulation, some artistically pleasant, others not so much.

The only problem with this technique is that it creates static web pages. If your design later changes or you get new sponsors and need different banners to rotate, you have to re-render the HTML. I looked around for a more dynamic web page publishing technique, but I couldn’t find anything well enough documented that I could learn it in what little spare time I had. I did learn and implement Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, which is a cool way to write a central design structure with a single text document.

In 2001, when I gave the job a rest for a year, webmaster Tim Toole won the SBE Chapter Website of the Year award.

In 2004, I created a potentially commercial site called Benx.us (Broadcast Engineers’ News & eXchange), but it really demanded collaboration and everyone else had their own gig going and didn’t want to combine efforts. Hackers seemed to enjoy exploiting the PHP forum vulnerabilities so that I had to reload the site daily for a while. With respect to the forum, people had different interpretations about freedom of speech. I took it down after a few months.

In 2005, I discovered the underworld of open source content management systems (CMS). These systems, depending on the increasingly popular open source PHP web task language and SQL database, automate all the dynamic web pages. All you have to do is customize a template and install the desired working modules. If you are seeing this in the summer of 2007, you are looking at the Mambo CMS with a customized JW Tribute template. Look at this site for a peek at what it looks like elsewhere.

I haven’t seen much discussion about this, but that pile of code makes the site seem vulnerable. First, many of the modules they distribute don’t work. That’s probably due to the classic mistake that amateur programmers make in writing for their particular circumstance and not to the greater design framework. Often they just lose interest while chasing all the bugs. We tried to use Mambo for an intranet at work, but customizing it got us into a mire of spaghetti code that we didn’t have the time to devote to–time is money. All that PHP code and that one, big, increasingly vulnerable database make me quite afraid that one day the site will be broken and I won’t be able to reconstruct it. Yes, I back it up, but what happens when the host updates PHP and MySQL and some of the code stops working? Meanwhile, the webpages from before 2005 just sit there as little text files, ready for viewing–simple, like an old car.

So for SBE36 version 3, I’m looking for a simple implementation of PHP and CSS, from which I can make a site from a structure of stored HTML insert text files. Sort of like the original site, but with dynamic style, banners, and menus.

Ideally, there should be one SBE supersite with virtual chapter sites built-in. You contribute articles and checkoff boxes as to where they should be read. But that’s not in the spirit of the ever independent web.

Why do all this work?

I thought about this question and at first came up with noble answers about informed citizens in a democracy and all that, but it’s more primal, really. Writers are simply compelled to tell the stories of their time. You ask Bob Gonsett of Fallbrook, Clay Freinwald of Seattle or Kent Randles of Portland and I suspect they would have to admit the same thing–that telling you about what is going on is something that just has to be done and we’re just going to do it.

Not that my work is as consistent or as high quality as theirs. In fact, it’s simply a product of the time and interest I have to devote to the task–no more, no less.

I try to use a couple of principles to guide me. One is to confirm information. Another is to give others a voice–especially if they disagree. Another is to try to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a small community. We all make mistakes.

So we do it because we like to inform, because we like to read our own taut script, and because once in a while someone says, “I read that article you wrote and really (liked it) (learned something) (it made me think) (laughed).”

Thank you just for reading.

Making Waves: RIP Gateway Electronics

Those of us who love to homebrew and tinker have lost a friend when Gateway Electronics in San Diego closed their doors in late April. The store sold a couple of years ago, but Manny and Fong couldn’t keep the cash flow positive, and a new lessee was to take over.

Here’s why I think Gateway closed:

  • People don’t have the time to tinker;
  • The integration of electronics has become so cheap and large-scale that small-scale projects don’t have much value;
  • Specialized small electronics items can now be found online;
  • The internet has made it possible to repurpose surplus gear through auction and direct sale sites without using retail outlets; and
  • Because of all of the above, retailers additional cash streams through either technical services, web sales, or local sales of higher traffic computer gear.

My favorite Gateway find was when, while looking at their selection of LEDs at the front glass counter shelves I saw in my peripheral vision a small container of tiny mechanical clocks. These are the kind of sealed, elapsed time counters they put on very expensive equipment that allowed you to log and time maintenance. This was in the mid-1990s when KFMB-TV had in service four Philips LDK-6 Plumbicon studio cameras that made great pictures. But their camera head timers had a habit of making a terrible noise when they presumably wore out their internal gears or just lost their lubrication. Philips charged $400 each for the neat-looking devices the size of your thumb. As far as I know, the LDK-6 may have been the only product they made that used this special 400Hz clock, and they had to manage their inventory and pay tax, year after year. Having worked in manufacturing, I understand parts costs. But here they were at Gateway, small, matte black, 400Hz, 100,000 hour elapsed time counters, $5 each. I bought four and we installed at least two of them over time.

I also liked their supplies of cheap LEDs, connectors, stainless hardware, and a great line of prototype circuit boards. They also stocked all kinds of transformers, switches, basic kits, and computer cables. Some items, like used switches and some really old test gear, you might not want to take home for fear of creating more of an expediture of time and energy than a savings that good engineering practices would dictate.

Gateway wasn’t the only surplus electronics supply store in the region, but they were the only one in Kearny Mesa within a short drive from most broadcast outlets. Industrial Liquidators doesn’t really count–they’re useful for some tools and pneumatic supplies, but have very little electronics stock. Murphy’s and California Surplus continue to operate from the same neighborhood of Johnson Avenue in El Cajon, and I’ll be the first to say that they do a good job of keeping their shelves tidy enough to make hardware relatively easy to find. If you ever have to replace or install a new one of those mil-spec MS “Amphenol” connectors, Cal. Surplus has a huge barrel of them that has saved me from the misery of waiting 8-10 weeks for a new one. Willy’s Electronics in National City still stocks some hobbyist electronics supplies, but its all new stuff and you pay full retail price. There’s the monthly Santee Swap Meet, but with the internet and declining electronics hobby, it’s become more of a big garage sale. I visit once a year for a load of tools, hi-fi cables, and fresh avocados.

The king, the acme, nay, the apex of surplus electronics is Apex Electronics in Sun Valley in the heart of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. I happened by there once when, during a visit to my mother-in-law’s, I took a side trip. With an acre or so of indoor shelves that must be 20 feet high and an outdoor lot of surely another couple of acres, this place is big. Good luck in an earthquake, pal. Take the virtual tour on their website. Microwave gear for pennies on the dollar, though that was before the price of copper went through the roof. If they don’t have what you want, then you should reconsider your design.

Epilogue

When Manny and Fong closed the Gateway doors, they handed out little pieces of paper with contact information and a promise of opening a new store. I tried to call and write to ask a few questions, but have yet to receive a reply.

What are your experiences with surplus buying? Are there other Southern California stores you know about? Tell us about it.

Making Waves: DST Means Work for You and Me

On March 11, 2007, Daylight Savings Time starts earlier than last year. Congress moved the date with a simple vote. Now you and I have to do all the dirty work to make our computerized world fall into place. Are you ready?

When I was 15 and enthused about ham radio, I bought from Allied Radio one of those 24-hour wall clocks and set it for Greenwich Mean Time. Yeah, I was that geeky. What that clock showed me is that all the fuss about time zones and daylight saving time is completely unnecessary. Why couldn’t the whole world run off one time and change their local school and work times to whatever they wanted? Does it really matter if they’re going to work at 0800 in London and we’re going to work at 1800 in San Diego? Instead, governments and corporations spend enormous resources tracking zone boundaries and daylight saving periods. DST serves only as a way to change the numbers on the clock, and is more meaningless the closer you get to the equator where sunrise and sunset times don’t change much. If safety and conservation are important at the upper latitudes, why don’t we just change the starting times of the school or work day to suit the daylight available?

In 1973, they messed with daylight saving time briefly because oil supplies were squeezed. They wanted more daylight in the afternoon so that we didn’t run so many lights at work. But what I remember is that we were suddenly getting up in utter dark, running the heat and lights at home an hour earlier than before. The problem was that at the 45th parallel, there was only so much daylight. At the time I worked at a small daytime only Class IV AM station in Oregon, and during December and January I would sometimes work weekends from the 8:30 AM sign-on to the 5:30 PM sign-off. According to Wikipedia, studies of the effects of DST have variously concluded savings of energy and traffic deaths as well as loss of savings to economic efficiency and increased energy peak loads at sunrise.

On March 11 this year, we’re changing from the usual early April changeover to DST to March 11. The United States change is part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Again the justification is to synchronize the workday to the hours of daylight available so that we are less dependent on Middle East oil.

The international ramifications are interesting. Canada decided to adopt the U.S. plan to move DST; Mexico did not. For the first time that I can remember, Tijuana will be in a different time zone from San Diego from March 11 until April 1. My station, XETV Fox 6, will be in the uncomfortable position of advertising programming times to its majority U.S. audience in Pacific Daylight Time, while the country of license observes Pacific Standard Time.

You may have work to do in preparation for March 11 this year. If you run Windows XP or Vista on the internet, you should be able to download their normal maintenance update to change the automatic DST switch date. If you run a machine isolated from the net, you’ll have to schedule a download or just change the time zone of the workstation in question.

It turns out that the Dallas Semiconductor real time clock (RTC) chips that control time in many computers have hard-coded DST changeover dates so that can’t be overcome except by manually changing the time or GMT offset.

You can program Macintosh computers to change automatically on the correct dates by editing the /etc/localtime file. Instructions can be found here. Linux.com has a clock howto with DST information.

If you depend on Java runtime applications, see Sun’s DST FAQ. It appears that if you accept the Java RT update being pushed to your workstations this month, you should be okay.

You’d do well to look around for time-dependent systems that may need your intervention. Some vendors are offering software upgrades to automate the GMT offset at the new time. Triveni, for example, is asking $500 to upgrade its PSIP management software that includes revised DST changeover dates. If you have a collection of similarly needy boxes around your broadcast facility and you can’t get away with simply changing the GMT offset yourself, this time change is going to cost you.

Making Waves Commentary: The Shotgun Approach

A little over two years ago, Fox 6 photojournalists were showing up at our service shop with odd, seemingly unrelated problems with their camcorders. The symptoms involved anything from servos to color encoding to erratic controls. We learned that the solutions, however, were almost always the same–change out a group of surface-mounted electrolytic capacitors or replace the entire circuit board. The DVCPRO camera or studio deck always went away working again until another, unrelated, failure occurred. Repair veterans like Greg Capalbo of GRC Electronics were warning us that the failed capacitor scenario was an epidemic, especially with Panasonic gear, but also to a lesser extent with Sony and other brands. And Panasonic was not supporting out-of-warranty fixes with either parts or labor.

As we saw more electronics come in with bad capacitors, it became increasingly clear that the future duties of our ENG specialist Ladd Prier might involve an endless, daunting series of tracing erratic component behavior to a circuit, then buying new caps, awaiting their arrival, then swapping them out and hoping the bad behavior would disappear. We visualized the coming stack of broken equipment and unhappy users. There had to be a better way.

Ladd and I come from a time when a technician took pride in tracing an obvious equipment failure to one or more components directly responsible. When an RCA TR-3 2″ videotape player headwheel wouldn’t spin up, I would get the four-inch thick manual, an extender, and Tektronix 545 oscilloscope and through a series of calculated guesses, eventually find the open or shorted germanium transistor or diode, then replace it and check a couple of waveforms before pronouncing the monster ready for duty.

Fast forward 25 years. Today’s equipment contains little undocumented black boxes. When the servo fails, you change out the servo board. But what if all boards fail on all news equipment? We were looking at a potential of essentially having to replace part-by-part all of our five-year-old Panasonic equipment.

A Better Way

On a whim, I called our temporary agency, TLC Staffing, and asked if they had any registered rework specialists. In manufacturing, these are the people who take circuit boards with errors on them, either by design or by manufacturing defect, and change out components as ordered to resurrect those boards. {mosimage}They are skilled at performing Lilliputian surface-mount technology soldering, and with incredibly tedious repetition.

TLC sent us Vu Le, who appeared businesslike, cheerful, and ready for action. Over the next ten weeks, he replaced nearly every surface-mounted capacitor in every Panasonic DVCPRO deck, both from the field and from inside the plant. He changed up to 400 caps a day for a total of nearly 20,000. Total cost: nearly $16,000 including parts. Every VTR and camcorder finished worked like new, especially when heads were changed at the same time. There were no more mysterious misbehaviors, a fraction of the downtime, and Ladd was now free to take care of the more normal maladies of ENG.

Months after Vu went on to other work, we noticed more equipment failures that seemed as though they could be capacitor related. Modules in our Wheatstone TV-80 mixer started having problems with bandpass and open circuits. Our digital Hitachi studio cameras had assorted color problems.

This time we didn’t hesitate. We hired temp Daniel Yanez to swap out all the electrolytics in those devices, though less careful to estimate the extent of the project. Now some 10 weeks later, Daniel is still slaving away, module after module. He began filling a three-gallon plastic jar with the tiny devices, and now it’s nearly a third full.

Obviously, if we knew the more about the exact nature of the failures, we could be more selective about the replacement. Were some of the caps higher grade? Which values really fail? If temperature is a factor, couldn’t we perform an IR scan to find the hotspots? Since we didn’t have a good composite history of the mixer and cameras across their user base, we didn’t have the knowledge to pick and choose what devices to replace, so we replaced them all. The basis for doing so was 100% empirical and 0% scientific.

Epilogue

Industry experts continue studying the science behind the SMT chip capacitor failures. It surprises me to learn that they blame not just chip chemistry, but physical conditions during manufacturing and board assembly. It appears as though bad things are happening to good companies with respect to their products not living as long as expected.

We bought replacement capacitors that were labeled as having a long expected life, but there’s no assurance that we’ll even double their life. In fact, we’ve replaced the camcorders in a surprise blast of capital funding. I expect the 7-year-old standard definition cameras and analog audio mixer can’t be far behind.

Daniel is looking for his next gig. Got bad stuff?


Comments

Courtesy CGC Communicator

The capacitor saga dates back to about 1998 and the wide use of surface mounted electrolytics. Those parts have a time and temperature rating. The ones supplied in most gear do not have the most generous ratings. While we deal with Sony, Panasonic, JVC, etc., their original board assembly may all be
done at one outside vendor. Thus, plenty of gear was built with marginal capacitors.  I first ran into this with Panasonic DVC-Pro recorders.  One audio card that was troublesome had 50 of the beasts on it.

The best way to test for bad capacitors is with a Capacitor Wizard that uses a high frequency to measure reactance. It works fine testing caps with no need to unsolder.

Roy Trumbull, roy547 (at) msn.com

 


 

The Panasonic DVC-Pros are the first and worst detected.

We tried Panasonic replacement kits and they didn’t fix all symptoms. I decided not to test the capacitors, figuring that we would have too many iterations of failure/remove/disassemble/test/replace/reassemble/return. Our rework guy could replace 400 caps per day, so I just said to heck with testing –replace them all!

It’s been my experience that measuring in-circuit reveals the problems in only one point in time and doesn’t address future cap failures. In our case, we haven’t had any symptoms in our DVCPRO decks since the mass replacement of capacitors.

Gary Stigall


URLs FOR ELECTROLYTIC PROBLEMS

Scroll down to the Great Capacitor Scare:
http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/22.73.html#subj9

This article discusses acidic leakage damaging circuit boards in mobile radios:
http://www.repeater-builder.com/motorola/spectra/spectra-caps.html

While this article is oriented towards PC board mounted caps, the cause is the same – bad electrolyte:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_plague

And more links yet:
http://www.ttiinc.com/object/ME_Zogbi_20050919.html
http://www.badcaps.net/
http://www.theinquirer.net/default.aspx?article=24596 (re Dell)

All in all, it looks like bad electrolyte is the root cause.
In some cases it causes a reduction in capacitance value (which
changes circuit performance), in others it blows the tops off the
caps, in others the electrolyte eats its way out of the cap and
eats up the board.

Mike Morris, WA6ILQ

Making Waves: BPL Comes Home

What happens when you suddenly find your dipoles surrounded by BPL couplers? I’m about to find out.

The Broadband over Power Line (BPL) pilot project continues in San Diego. The test observation committee set-up by SDG&E power systems engineer Terry Snow, of which I am the token broadcasting representative, met last during the recent NAB Convention, but Terry was kind enough to forward a copy of the meeting minutes. 

{mosimage}So imagine my surprise when I looked at an enclosed map to see that the third vendor pilot would surround my University City home. The system power-up is scheduled for this week, and the amount of activity in the neighborhood has been very high. Truck crews have been installing wireless receive antennas and data couplers on poles and electricians have put data modems in a test  home…which happens to be a next-door neighbor.

I won’t comment much on the BPL pilots to date except to say we haven’t found any measurable interference to the broadcast bands that you care about. I’ve agreed with SDG&E to patiently await results of spectrum analysis tests before drawing any conclusions. There is something a bit childish about berating a scientist as he’s performing his experiments, whether you agree with the science or not.

It appears as though Terry and his co-workers are genuinely interested in getting feedback on interference caused by their BPL pilots, and they are studying similar pilots around the country for experiences with interference. In fact, they added a vendor to their pilot series that was known for reduced interference. There are at least three of us on the committee who are licensed ham radio operators. Whether the board at Sempra Energy takes their, or our, final recommendations to heart is another matter.

I have to believe that my neighborhood was chosen because it was one of the last with overhead electrical lines, and due to the lack of CC&R’s, it has has a higher incidence of ham radio operators than later built neighborhoods. If Terry chose specifically to surround my house, that’s very funny Terry. Very funny.

As a ham radio licensee for 35 years, I haven’t been very active for the past few years. I have enjoyed 6 meter E-skip operations from time to time, but that’s about it. I have a dual 10 meter/40 meter dipole and a decent collection of 40-year-old Drake equipment, so I’ll be firing that up to make sure there the HF interference characteristics haven’t changed. It’s been amazingly quiet here considering the urban nature of the neighborhood. I hope it remains that way, but the future’s not bright. 

One of the surprising findings on a previous pilot project site test was that the primary radiators in the fake home office was a plasma TV generating a big, raspy signal on the upper portion of the AM broadcast band. When we turned that off, we found another device radiating in the middle frequencies of AM–this was the power supply of the BPL modem, not the power lines themselves. We saw a heterodyne on channel 6, but turning off the BPL system made no difference. 

Ever played Whac-a-mole at Chuck E Cheese?

Making Waves Commentary: Gonsett Fights Satellite Receiver Makers

(Commentary) The popular industry email bulletin CGC Communicator published by Communications General Corporation consulting engineer Robert Gonsett ran a series of summary articles this year on the emissions of what he terms “mini-transmitters” used for getting audio from satellite receivers to automobile FM radios. At question was the power and frequencies chosen for the job.

Sometimes taking on entrenched forces of big business and big government becomes a hopeless morass of stonewalling and legal manuevering; the one with the most expensive den of attorneys wins. At other times, the system works. Follow along as we piece together the story of how one person can shed enough light on foul activity to make a difference.

This story began nearly two years ago, shortly after I took the job as Chief Engineer at the XETV Fox 6 studio in San Diego. Disclosure: XETV retains well-known consulting engineer Robert Gonsett specifically to deal with matters of interference, be they intentional or incidental. The actions taken by Bob were largely done by his own initiative, though I am left personally grateful and somewhat astonished from the lesson of power in process and persistence.

The Punching Bag of TV Spectrum

Pity the poor channel 6 over-the-air viewer in San Diego. First of all, the signal’s low band VHF, which means viewers must contend with urban electrical noise and the visual blight of a large antenna, if they bother at all. Then there’s the distance from the transmitter in Mexico to viewers north of Mission Valley. Add that the XETV’s power is split between horizontal and vertical polarization so that unless you have a special circular polarization receive antenna, you can’t receive the full signal. And then we deal with the adjacent band noncommercial FM broadcasters who want nothing worse than to improve coverage for their deserving listeners. The latest assault, however, comes from the proliferation of little FM modulators people use to transfer without wires the audio from their file players and various satellite receivers to a stock automobile FM stereo radio.

Those FM modulators are termed by the FCC “intentional radiators,” which means that their radiation is intended, in contrast to the unintended radiation from, say, your computer’s switching power supply. Under FCC regulation 15.209(a), such intentional radiators must have a fundamental signal within the FM band measured at no more than 150 uV/m at 3 meters distance, and they’re just plain not allowed on TV channels 5 and 6.

The  Journal

2005 – I begin receiving occasional calls from viewers who say that they are watching us when the colors  flash and they can hear music or voices unrelated to the video emanating from their TV speakers. Their interference comes and goes as do their neighbors. Obviously, this must be occurring with other channel 6 outlets around the country.

December 2005 – Gonsett’s newsletter, the CGC Communicator, relays a report from an LA radio chief engineer that a pirate broadcaster he picks up on his car radio is actually an XM satellite receiver FM modulator. “It amazed me how far I could hear the FM modulator….at least 250 feet if not further. This is the second time that this has happened to me while driving around…I strongly question whether these XM modulators are Part 15 compliant because they are able to radiate signals over 250 feet….”

March 11, 2006 – The Philadelphia Inquirer runs a story about the interference to non-commercial FM stations caused by satellite radio receivers. By this time, it is common knowledge that the default frequency on many of those receiver modulators is 88.1 MHz, much to the dismay of stations like KKJZ in Long Beach. Mike Starling, NPR Director of Engineering and Operations in Washington, promotes using 87.9 MHz as a default frequency—understandable in light of the fact that many, if not most, of these mini-transmitters come equipped to transmit only on non-commercial frequencies at the lower end of the FM band.

March 29, 2006 – Bob Gonsett writes a detailed letter to Sirius Radio Public Relations officers, with copies sent to various FCC contacts. In it, he asks that the satellite radio companies provide proof that they have received from the FCC a specific waiver that allows them to market satellite radios with FM modulators, “intentional radiators,” operating outside the FM broadcast band on 87.7 and 87.9 MHz.

March 30, 2006 – TV Technology magazine, in Doug Lung’s RF Report, highlights the FM modulator issue as a result of correspondence with Fred Lass, director of engineering at WRGB channel 6 in Schenectady, N.Y. Doug names the names of several modulator manufacturers that advertise illegal modulators and clarifies the FCC rules regarding continuous intentional radiation either misunderstood or ignored by those manufacturers. Doug reveals that Lass has notified the FCC Office of Technology about these transmitters. Lass tells Lung, “All that is required to find [illegal transmitters] is to do a Google search of ‘87.9 MHz’ to get a list of manufacturers and retailers selling these devices in the U.S.”

April 8, 2006 – Bob Gonsett “gets the ball rolling” by filing a complaint with the FCC in Washington against Sirius Satellite for incorporating 87.7 and 87.9 MHz into the intentional radiator mini-transmitters that are built into many Sirius consumer satellite receivers. He chooses to focus the filing on a single high profile case in order to simplify the process, shed light on the problem, and hope that the FCC would itself broaden the investigation.

April 27, 2006 – XM Radio files an 8-K form with the SEC in which it reveals to investors that it has received an inquiry received from the FCC OET on April 25 regarding the emissions of the Delphi SkyFi2 radio. The company states that it is making an internal review and anticipates “responding to the letter shortly and cooperating fully.”

May 8, 2006 – Bob Gonsett posts on his CGC Communicator an anonymous comment from a Los Angeles FM broadcast engineer favoring modulators operating below the FM band. “My feeling on any small transmitter for an XM, Sirius, HD or MP3 players is that they SHOULD use these out of band frequencies. Currently, FCC Rules do not allow this, but the situation deserves careful examination and consideration. Given the interference these devices cause to mobile on-channel reception of legitimate stations, we should give them out of band authorization (but not above 107.9 MHz). As a user, I cannot find a clean channel to use in Los Angeles for my XM receiver. As a licensee, I would not want them on my channel.” A sort of spectral NIMBY statement, but who wants mass transmitters on his frequency?

May 16, 2006 – Reuters reports that Audiovox Corp. suspends shipments of its Xpress Model XMCK10 XM satellite radio receiver after the FCC says the unit “did not comply with either operating bandwidth or related emission specifications.”

May 30, 2006 – XM Radio files another Form 8-K with the SEC in which it reveals to investors that it has suspended marketing of radios made by Delphi and Audiovox in order to comply with an inquiry received from the FCC on April 25. XM says it will modify the radios in question and submit them for Part 15 compliance testing. “We plan to have modified devices shipping to retailers in the near term.”

May 31, 2006 – Orbitcast.com quotes Sirius Radio EVP/CFO David Frear as saying that “all SIRIUS Satellite Radio receivers are in full FCC compliance. Some letters were sent regarding some Sirius devices that were out of spec. Frear stated that they then went to the receiver manufacturers and took care of the problem a while ago. All SIRIUS Radios are in full FCC compliance. Case closed.” Phewww.

Like the Whac-a-mole amusement at your local Chuck E Cheese, getting a couple of vendors to change their ways through FCC inquiries will inevitably result in another vendor producing a replacement product. After all, consumers demand a convenient way to transfer audio without wires. And none of this activity has yet dealt with the multitude of transmitters out there designed to transmit Apple iPod audio over FM. Some of those mini-transmitters are reported to put out suspiciously high signal levels. The work continues.

John Buffaloe Checks In from New Orleans After Katrina

Reprinted with permission from the CGC Communicator, September 2, 2005, by Robert Gonsett.

As many of you know, John Buffaloe was the man in charge of Jefferson Pilot’s San Diego radio engineering operations for many years. He had a very successful career with JP, lived in San Diego County and followed his and his wife’s dream to move to New Orleans where he became Director of Engineering for a radio cluster in January of this year (CGC #670).

Just before leaving San Diego, however, he had to deal with the collapse of the KSON(AM) tower structure, and he is now dealing with a far more difficult situation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Following is John’s report, dated today. He’s one of us, and we could well be in his shoes.

Greetings all,

Annette and I are fine and in Memphis with friends. She was already here when Katrina hit, and I arrived last night after several harrowing experiences. We escaped with both of our cars, my two favorite guitars and a Crate V-15 amp, various electronic devices (gotta have that laptop), five days worth of clothes, some tools and Annette’s portfolio negatives.

We don’t know the condition of our house, although we do know it’s not under water nor did it ever flood. It has probably been looted by now, or will be soon. I was fired from my job on Wednesday, but I won’t get into that for obvious reasons.

The power has been out at my 85 year old Dad’s house in Jackson, MS since Monday and will probably be out for another two to three weeks. He has excellent round the clock assistance which allows me to be in Memphis with my wife for a little while.

Annette and I had dreamed of leaving southern California for years and moving to New Orleans to spend the rest of our lives. We were fortunate that I landed a job there in January and we moved into a beautiful renovated house in Algiers Point and were getting on quite well with our new life. I stumbled into an association with a gospel vocal group called the Zion Harmonizers, and was honored to be the first Caucasian to be associated with them in their 56 year history. We did two shows at the House of Blues Gospel Brunch two weeks ago, and I was featured as lead bass singer on a song called “Crossing Over.” My brother-in-law was there and is the only family member that ever got to see me with the Zions. We were to do a short tour in Spain in December and I was looking forward to performing with them at Jazz Fest in the spring. I don’t know any of the members whereabouts or condition at this time. They are true gentlemen and devoted Christians and they accepted me like I was a family member.

This is intended only to inform, not to engender sympathy. Annette and I are fine and will be fine in the future. All we have lost is stuff. We have our lives and each other, and we’ll eventually put it all back together and get back on our feet. We aren’t broke by any means, and our insurance will cover most of our financial losses. Employment for me will become an issue but I am confident I’ll find something at the appropriate time. In the meantime, we have a small apartment next door to friends, and a large support group of other friends here in Memphis. Considering what’s happening in New Orleans right now, and that either or both of us could still be there, I find myself extremely lucky to be in the current circumstances.

Many ask the simple question, “What will you do next” which calls for a million responses. I will actually do my laundry next as I have been on the road and used up all of my clothing for the past five days. Then Annette and I will begin to focus on what needs to be addressed, get centered, and start knocking things down. It will be somewhere between three and six months before we can return to assess our house damage and recover whatever possessions may be left intact.

Sometimes life does funny things to you. While I am certainly saddened by our misfortune, I very much count myself and Annette as two of the lucky ones with options to recover. It will take a couple of years, but we both have our talents and intelligence and will come out fine.

Thank you all for the encouraging emails and the reaching out of love and support. It really does help.

The city of New Orleans as we knew it will never exist again. A new New Orleans will eventually rise, but the “bowl” will be uninhabitable for years to come. There are thousands of homes that will have no option but to be demolished, and the land on which they sit will be contaminated from the chemicals in the flood waters. What will remain of the old New Orleans will likely be a small strip of town running between the river and St. Charles Ave. which will include the French Quarter if they can get a handle on the levee breaches.

If you can make a donation to the recovery effort, I urge you to do so. There are two million displaced people, many without resources and most will never be able to return to their homes. To say that this is catastrophic is a clichéd understatement. I was actually on the ground in New Orleans on Wednesday afternoon, and what I saw was way beyond what you can imagine from the video on TV. I was fortunate to be flown in and back out in a helicopter rented by my former company. I felt sick as I watched others looking up at us as we departed, knowing I would be free to move forward with my life while they would soon find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive.

Annette and I are indeed fortunate. Our experience is a lesson in counting your blessings.

I can be reached via email at johnbuffaloe@yahoo.com. Please feel free to forward this to whomever you feel may be interested.

—John Buffaloe

Coffee, a Danish, and a Little Pirate Talk

No one was arrested, but an estimated $3,000 worth of equipment was confiscated at pirate station Free Radio San Diego, Thursday, July 21. The station was located located in the South Park section of San Diego near Balboa Park east of downtown. The FCC was quoted in a San Diego Union-Tribune article to say they make such raids based on complaints. Pirate station rep “Bob Ugly” says on his website “it was understood that this raid was coming.” A sign on the door from the FCC had said so.

No one was arrested, but an estimated $3,000 worth of equipment was confiscated at pirate station Free Radio San Diego, Thursday, July 21. The station was located located in the South Park section of San Diego near Balboa Park east of downtown. The FCC was quoted in a San Diego Union-Tribune article to say they make such raids based on complaints. Pirate station rep “Bob Ugly” says on his website “it was understood that this raid was coming.” A sign on the door from the FCC had said so.

Bill Zears of the FCC said that he can’t comment while the U.S. District Attorney prepares its case.

I sat down one morning in September of 2003 with Bob Ugly at a coffeehouse in the Golden Hill neighborhood in San Diego near where a 5/8-wave vertical antenna broadcasts on 96.9 MHz above his apartment.

So how did you get started?

It started in the summer of 2001 something like that. If you look around radio enough, you kind of get tired of all the same stations, and all the program directors and GMs are the same and what program director doesn’t realize it’s all the same stuff? A new station tries to fire up, saying, ‘What kind of niche can we fill?’ It’s all so lame. I’ll see what I can do about starting a new radio station. It should be easy. So I started looking into low-power FM. The windows [for legal filing for LPFM licenses] shut down in 2000. I started reading about how NPR and NAB had sunk the second adjacents and so on. The more I started reading this, the more I thought, ‘Those bastards!’ So I started thinking I can do this legitimately. There’s no inherent reason to break the law, but the more I looked into this, the more I thought this is ridiculous.

Then I started reading about Free Radio Berkeley and Free Radio Santa Cruz and Radio Rhode Island and I thought, ‘These people have a point.’ So, basically it was just another guy and me sitting around thinking about what we were going to need to do this. I majored in Electrical Engineering in college at the University of Connecticut, but I didn’t really do any RF stuff.

We started doing everything mobile up at Mt. Soledad in October of 2002. There was a radio guy up there who had heard about our upcoming broadcast from some shortwave radio show. He thought we were crazy for transmitting from that open location. We continued to broadcast from that location until Bill Zears from the FCC walked up 30 minutes after we started our show. He was pretty rad. We had fake plates on the van. He had nothing on us, but it was nerve-wracking having that badge shined in our face for the first time.

So then we started going up to Cowles Mountain. We hiked up with our equipment and five people with car batteries, big deep cycle marine ones—a pain in the ass. We did this every week for three freaking months, every Sunday from the summer of 2002 through the fall of 2002. We had this incredible listening range from Cowles Mountain. Bill Zears would set in his SUV at the bottom of the mountain and wait for us to come down, then try to follow us home. One time this guy pops out of the bushes, and it’s dark—8:00 in the winter—with a walking stick and headphones on. Here’s this dude you can tell hasn’t been out in the sunshine. Bill Zears again. I have to give him a little credit because—can you imagine approaching these strangers in the middle of the night like that? He doesn’t have a gun or anything. Starts following us up the mountain, though we decide to just turn around and go to La Mesa or something—another hill. That was the last time we decided to go mobile.

So then we put it on a boat in San Diego Harbor. That was really good except for the fact that the corrosion does not really treat copper too well, especially where you have places where copper goes into aluminum. Connectors, anything like that—we had losses through the roof. Suddenly, we found a house in Golden Hill some friends were living in, and one day we were looking from the roof and were sitting up there and we notice that we can see all of South Bay and into east county. I said, ‘If we put an antenna up here we could get all the way into Mexico if we had enough juice.’ Then I ask the landlord, ‘Would you mind if we put a radio station in here?’ He was this old hippie guy. He was like, ‘I don’t care as long as I don’t get screwed with.’

We rented a room. We’ve been doing that since April [2003]. I measured the SWR the other day and found out we were getting about one watt reflected. That makes me feel happy. We run about 30 watts and the antenna has about 4.3dB of gain, so so I’d say about the high 50s. Omnidirectional. It’s a 5/8-wave ground plane with about 10% downward deflection. Suits the environment. That antenna is built to be located on a fairly high location. 10 percent is pretty steep, so it’s not ideal. I deal with all of the RF equipment. I like knowing that we haven’t had any complaints. I have two really high end pass filters—they attenuate at 88 and 108 MHz.

I’ve talked to John Buffalo over at [alternate channel 97.3MHz] KSON. He and I have very different opinions but he’s actually a nice guy. He says from what he’s heard we’re a very small fly on a big ass. They have a tower that I think is just a mile away. At one time we were occupying bandwidth all the way up to 97.1, but that’s too much for me and I turned it down. I just want to walk on the straight and narrow.

The biggest thing that the FCC claims—they claim a lot of things—is that if you let people without licenses on the air, then people who don’t know their asses from a hole the ground are going to run Ramseys and all kinds of other crap.

Then you don’t run a Ramsey?

No, no. 0h, no—I’m not nearly ghetto enough to touch one of those things. No, actually our equipment is Veronica out of the U.K. Pretty bulletproof stuff.

I stay in touch with the unlicensed transmitters in San Diego who take safety as a top priority. Whatever their format is, I have absolutely no interest in dealing with people who are going add fuel to the fire of the argument that unlicensed broadcasters are to going to make planes fall out of the sky. I don’t want to help those people. I want them to get the hell out of Dodge.

One of the things I got out of talking to a lot of those people is that the FCC really screwed themselves over when they jerked around with the LPFM thing because they work really hard for that. We’re like, ‘We’ll hang up our pirate spurs and go along with the new rules.’ When they jerked this around it was basically the last straw. The cool thing is, if you had to pick an agency of the federal government to screw around with, it would be the FCC.

The thing that bothers me is that the FCC never was against second adjacent low-power FM stations. The coalition of NAB and NPR basically said, ‘We’ll smash second-adjacent.’ The group MITRE had a study that was buried deep in some website that said what everyone already knew—that second-adjacent [FM broadcasting] isn’t bad, and third-adjacent—you could use a lot more power than 100 watts. There were seven congressmen who basically got paid off by the NAB and NPR and they put on an omnibus bill in the year 2000. NPR said, ‘We are your community station. You don’t need any other community stations.’ There’s big money. Talk to anyone who is in an NPR station. Anyone who’s not an idiot knows that second adjacent—providing you’re not pumping out 100,000 watts—doesn’t interfere with anything.

Stuff like that is what crystallizes a lot of the pirate broadcasters who have been on for more than eight years. People who say “This is bull—-.” There’s always a catch. You got more money, you get whatever you want. I mean, right after that, they gave 96.9 to the Super Bowl [to use at their Qualcomm Stadium event in San Diego], to add insult to injury.

The thing with Bill Zears [of the local FCC office is that] when he comes around we have to treat him like an enemy combatant. I’m sure he’s not really a bad guy. He’s just doing his job. But we can’t really talk to him. Our lawyers refer to this as the Neuremburg Defense which I guess is the classical concept that just because it’s the rule doesn’t necessarily mean that enforcing it is the right action.

Do you have any argument with the FCC’s jurisdiction over local radio?

I’m more than understanding that I’m in the minority when it comes to sticking my finger up at the federal government. We’re not causing any interference—we’re really not. The only thing that upsets me about the FCC is that if they do come around and seize our equipment is that were not causing any problems. If we were causing problems I’d be the first person to shut us down in half a heartbeat. I run a bullwhip on those deejays and make sure that we don’t f— anything up. When you have a responsibility to the broadcasting community you don’t f— things up like that.

You were approached by the FCC in June [of 2003]. How was it that you’re up now in September?

They say they have the ability. They really don’t. We just got our response from Senator Dianne Feinstein. If, for example, you went over to the Turf Club there and set up a little Slim Jim omni antenna and a transmitter, sometime later there’s probably going to be some geek call-up the FCC and say there’s this guy over here with an illegal transmitter. They’re going to come out and they’re going to tell you, ‘I’m here to inspect your equipment.’ We knew that they can’t just come in and inspect our equipment without a search warrant. If you get a license one of the things is that you give them the ability to inspect on demand. They can inspect without your consent, either by getting a license in which you give them consent to inspect, or if they come around you do say, ‘Yes, you can come in and check my sh– out.’ That does not mean they have the right to search. That just means they have the right to ask. You’re going to tell them, ‘Hey, get the hell out.’

So anyway, they came around and said, ‘We have the right to search your house without a search warrant,’ and say we have the right not to answer any questions. They kept questioning us—not really big stuff. Anyway, we made audio CDs of that stuff and sent it to the oversight committee and all these different people. Senator Feinstein picked it up and she made a congressional inquiry on them. I doubt it really rattled their cage. We’re really small potatoes, and I’m sure all they did was ignore it.

Then they’re going to try to find out who you are, what your real name is. Then they’re going to give you a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and then a Notice of Apparent Liability. It’s like a $10,000 fine. They’re going to try to give you a court injunction saying, no, you were never allowed to operate this stuff legally. So then they go after you by saying you violated a court order—that’s the worst that can happen. And then they’re going to try to get a court injunction on you to see if they can get you in court to enjoin you in court and say you were never allowed to operate legally. If you do, you’re not violating an FCC rule, you’re violating a court order, which is much worse. That’s if they get your name. If they can’t get your name, the next thing they’re going to do is go for a search warrant. Basically, they’re going to tell the judge, ‘Hey there’s this radio station going on. We don’t know who the people are who are running it so we’re going to get a search warrant and here’s a list of equipment were going to seize.’ Then they go in, maybe with some police guys to back them up, and they’re just going to take all the equipment. We more less imagine that’s what they’re going to do with us—they’re going to execute a search warrant.

They have to go to the U.S. District Attorney’s office, and he has to be the one to go before a Federal judge and ask for that search warrant. Now you’re looking at two different scenarios: how bad these guys want to prosecute it, and that’s a variable—who knows? I don’t know Bill Zears. I don’t think he’s going to tell me before lunchtime.

The next one is when they go before the U.S. District Attorney’s office—John Ashcroft’s cronies—and they have to decide, what’s our caseload? We have this radio station that isn’t causing any interference. Basically one of two things is going to happen: Either they’re look at their stack of drug charges and say, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me,’ and throw this thing back at the FCC, or say, ‘Wow, this is kind of interesting, something other than running more drug cases.’ So it’s a matter of luck. A federal judge at that point would have to rubber-stamp them.

Our attorneys basically told us that as soon as the district attorney asked for it, he gives them a couple of pieces of paper, a dock warrant. It has to be done between 6 and 10:00 AM Monday through Friday.

You can only be so worried about that stuff for so long. Every afternoon we would just be incredibly happy that we succeeded for one more day. Now we look at it as just the cost of doing business. We have backups of equipment. We have backups of all our music. We have backups of computers. We have backups of everything. It’s going to kind of suck when we take a hit and lose all our stuff. If they want to come back, they have to get another warrant. It gets ridiculous after a while. So we’ll see how it pans out. That’s our strategy.

We actually did a cost analysis. The last station that got bought was a Mexican station, and it sold for something like $14-million–they actually sold two of them at the same time. If you chop that cost in half, it was something like seven or $8-million. And that was really really low–the station nobody really cared about at the time. So if they raid us every six months for 2000 years, and we had to replace our equipment every time, it would be more economical than buying an FM station on the open market.

We have a lot of fund-raisers. We’ve raised over $6,000 with their fund-raisers. It’s all gone into equipment, web streams, power bills, equipment, of course. It’s kind of showing itself, and what I never believed would happen. It’s all been very small donations. There’s a bar in South Park, Sparky’s, that donated sales of five kegs of beer. They had a pirate party for us. Another show on the UCSD campus benefited us, with all the bands playing for free. We got several hundred dollars from an event at Pokie’s. A lot of people are pissed that their money may have to go toward replacing equipment that is confiscated.

Stuff’s cheap. We have to go into this with the concept of buying stuff that is not too expensive.

Our volunteers actually pay $20 per month to be deejays. We have public meetings the last Wednesday of every month at the Golden Hill Rec Center. At our last meeting, we had 40 people show up, with the sound of basketball going on in the background. Very junior high. Very cute.

With rent, electricity, and so on, our expenses are about $400 per month. We figure about 20 people pay every month.

So you have a real community here.

When I first thought of this, I thought, ‘I’m going to play what I want to hear.’ Then I started to realize that if you have the privilege of being able to use broadcast, it’s really irresponsible of you not to include the community. I’m not really a capitalist, and I have my own show, but we have this guy who’s always speaking in defense of capitalism. On Sunday mornings we have gospel music. We have Mississippi blues and bluegrass, rock, hip-hop. We use the software OTS—it’s an Australian product—to schedule our programming. We have two rules for the deejays. One is that you can’t advertise—you can’t use the airwaves to promote your own product. The other is you can’t sound like crap–you have to be professional sounding on the air. The only rule I can think about is that we don’t allow racist stuff. Otherwise we don’t censor anyone.

DTV Channel Speculation Fest

What’s up with the DTV channel elections announced by the FCC? Not much, considering the electric meters will probably run a few more years at transmitter sites nationwide. However, there are new voids to consider. America hates voids where potential profits lie dormant. Let’s look at the possibilities….

The FCC last month announced one big step toward U.S. TV stations determining their permanent over-the-air digital channels. There were no surprises among San Diego stations, but a few interesting trends here and nationwide.

Most stations on the upper VHF band elected to keep that channel to broadcast DTV. The lower free space loss and terrain forgiving characteristics are just too tempting to give up, at the cost of low signal for viewers who may have equipped themselves with UHF-only antennas. With San Diego viewers, the bowties and Winegard Squareshooter antennas should serve adequately most over-the-air viewers having to receive KFMB channel 8 and KGTV channel 10 from Mt. Soledad.

Many stations, like KUSI, KPBS, and KNSD, have chosen to keep their digital channel and consequently will lose their long-established channel number identity. This saves from having to buy transmission equipment again. It’s also far-sighted because the future branding of stations can’t be tied to channel numbers due to multicasting and independent cable and satellite channel number schemes.

Are We Headed in the Right Direction?

You need only look at the mess of allocations in Southern California to see that we may be missing an opportunity to reorganize the TV bands. In San Diego, for example, over-the-air viewers must aim at four transmitter sites just to pick up signals from the eight most watched English-speaking stations. Spanish and Asian language stations are spread out on even more hilltops. This makes viewing of digital stations so difficult that it’s truly shameful. Even those of us who know transmitter locations and have rotators would never put up with the delay of aiming between sites as we switch channels. And if you have three TVs, should you mount three antenna systems? Homeowners in newer subdivisions are discouraged from installing external antennas at all. And with the current state of RF science, why should they have to? Cellular users certainly don’t mount big antennas with rotators outside.

One of the most profound comments I heard at the NAB Convention this year was when Technology Luncheon keynote speaker, esteemed engineer and author Dr. Robert Lucky proposed that stations cluster in groups of ten adjacent digital channels for a given community. Simple as that. Think of the ramifications: possible sharing of transmission towers and antennas, a single orientation for receive antennas, great opportunities for spectrum reuse, the ability to cluster large numbers of virtual channels for a cable-like experience, and with properly spaced sites, viewers could use simple indoor antennas.

Obviously the number “ten” may have been thrown out for discussion. Los Angeles would probably require more and Yuma might require fewer. What if you could do this with lower power on strategically-located peaks, much like is done in Europe and now rural Utah? In the San Diego region for instance, you could place clusters on Mt. San Antonio in Tijuana, Mt. San Miguel, Mt. Soledad, Mt. Woodson, Palomar Mtn., Santiago Peak, Monument Peak, and so on. Gary Sgrignoli, formerly of Zenith, has been preaching this form of practical digital television. Likewise, the senior men of the translator industry–Kent Parsons of Utah; Byron St. Clair, formerly with Television Technology Corp. (now Larcan); Ellis Feinstein, formerly owner of Scala Antennas–have presented the practicality of this system to the FCC and engineering groups. Others who see only the value of the profit machines of multi-hundred channel cable and satellite systems may ask instead why we bother with over-the-air broadcasting at all.

Would the Last Station to Abandon Low Band Please Turn Off the Filaments?

Low band VHF will be all but dead when the analog transmitters shut down. I count fewer than 35 preliminary choices in that band. Most are rural or medium market stations. Some should know better. Let’s face it, consumers simply refuse to install big VHF antennas in urban and suburban settings now, and rabbit ears pick up too much indoor electrical impulse noise on lower V. The handful of stations electing lower VHF band channels might beg to differ, but can you really keep 30 MHz of spectrum nationwide for a few holdouts?

CBS in Los Angeles and Chicago both had choices between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In Chicago, WBBM bargained for the current NTSC VHF channel 11 allocation of the local PBS affiliate WTTW rather than its old analog channel 2 or digital channel 3. WTTW will probably get to keep their current channel 47 UHF slot–and that eliminates the cost of new transmission facilities–and there’s speculation they got a nice gift from CBS for their troubles. In Los Angeles, KCBS lost its channel 60 digital allocation to the elimination of channels 52 – 69 and chose to take its sister station KCAL’s channel 43 rather than return to channel 2. Some VHF channel affiliates haven’t chosen their final resting channel yet, perhaps working on, or waiting for, on opportunities to trade channels.

What would happen to the lower VHF band after analog shutdown? With the band’s susceptibility to noise and frequent ionospheric propagation, a robust, mobile-friendly digital format with vertical polarization seems a no-brainer. For one possiblility, look no further than the recent Radio World article on progress with Digital Radio Mondaile (DRM). You might know this digital format for its slow adoption on the shortwave bands. According to Scott Fybush, DRM is now being tested in Eastern Europe at 60 MHz and in Japan on the 76-90 MHz FM band—what we consider low band VHF TV. There are problems with DRM with respect to its needing a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio, so the format may need to be modified or dropped in favor of some other. But with some financial incentive to the FCC, this band could become a challenge to the choice of satellite radio with some local content thrown in. Group owners like Clear Channel and Viacom might be interested in fine-toothed format transmissions in the vein of XM Radio. Local organizations might be interested in supplying free-form public service information, traffic, religion, and art music.

It should be interesting watching the border during the analog shutdown. There is no indication that Mexican or Canadian stations will sign off their analog services when the U.S. does. English-speaking over-the-air viewers along the Mexican border will be left with so few choices that such continuation may be of little value. Spanish language border stations will have an incentive to continue to beam to an appreciative over-the-air audience with many active channels.

Of course, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves with speculation. We’re in the closing months of Round One of a three-round process. The culmination of this work is a DTV Table of Allocations that doesn’t happen till August 2006. Besides, Congress has yet to determine the date of analog TV service shutdown at a time when we continue to see department store shelves full of televisions with analog-only tuners.