Category Archives: Commentary

Making Waves: An Ode to Ham Radio

Attending once again the annual NAB Ham Radio Reception reminded me of the great impact ham radio has had on broadcasting. Many familiar faces, both famous in the industry and not, were in attendance.

According to my old log book, I made my first ham radio QSO (conversation) 40 years ago on May 1, 1971.

I had first seen a ham radio station when my seventh grade math teacher, John Kellmer, offered to see his son Marvin’s set-up because he had overheard me tell a friend about my new Philips electronics experimenters kit. Marv, WA7ECV, had a huge boat anchor of a transmitter, a Heathkit TX-1 “Apache,” and its accompanying single sideband adaptor. He had a new Drake R4B receiver that glowed greenish blue with a frequency dial accurate to a kilohertz. I wanted one immediately. An approaching thunderstorm allowed Marv to demonstrate static buildup on his inverted-V dipole by putting a neon light across the terminals and watching it light up when the voltage exceeded about 90 volts DC. I grinned for about an hour solid there.

About two years later, when a couple guys from my Spanish class, Steve Coffman and Lee Romine, said they were interested in ham radio, we plowed ahead and studied for the Novice class FCC license. I had prepared with by ordering from Lafayette Electronics an Ameco Morse code key, a code study phonograph record, and an ARRL book, “How to Become a Radio Amateur.”

I rode with Lee 45 minutes to nearby Bend, Oregon to take the license exam. Steve and his mailman, ham K7HOG, met us at the home of a friend where the exam was given. Steve, Lee, and I all passed, then waited for our licenses to arrive from the FCC.

My ticket, WN7RGQ, arrived the next month, and I was on the air May 1. Unfortunately, I had purchased a cheap new Ten-Tec PM-2 transceiver that, while cute, could only output a bit over a watt continuous wave (CW). And like all Novices of the day, I was restricted to whatever frequencies I happened to own crystals for. Nonetheless, I made dozens of contacts, and developed a couple of friends. I would chat with kids my age in Washington state or over an hour at a time using Morse code.

We grew restless to advance to a class of license that would less restrict our output power and frequency movement, so we began studying for our General Class licenses. Mr. Kellmer wanted his license as well, so he took us weekly to the community college for an adult education class in license prep. We learned basic electronics, including tube amplifier theory, using an Ameco book, and practiced faster code on an Instructograph paper tape player in an adjacent temporary building.

When we were ready for the exam, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Portland, where the nearest FCC field office was located. I remember that the office staff seemed like they were doing everyone a favor offering the exams. We all flunked the first go-round, Steve (WN7RGR) and I on the code receiving, and Lee  (WN7RGS) on the technical exam. But when we retook the test a month later, we all passed and our “N” callsigns became “A” callsigns.

Ham radio equipment used in the US had been nearly 100% US made, but the Japanese were just introducing their equipment here, and I bought the new Kenwood T-599 transmitter and matching R-599 receiver. They had a beautiful brushed metal front panel but cheap looking meters. With 200 watts, I began talking across the Pacific to Japan, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand.

Marv had a friend who worked at the local radio station, KRCO (AM), and encouraged me to give him a call to get a tour. During their Sunday afternoon playback of a performance from the Ashland Shakespearean Festival, Mike Toney showed me a gorgeously crafted Collins 20-T transmitter, and a new Gates Yard console and heavy Gates turntables. I was hooked. A year later when he went away to college, I took Mike’s place at the station.

The funny thing is, that largely replaced ham radio for me. I sold my radios to buy my first car, then went away to college, got married, and so on. Like many, now that my kids are independent teens now and I no longer hang out with big transmitters, I’ve come back to ham radio to some degree, and have a nice new bunch of ham friends.

Until recently, broadcasting seemed a lot like amateur radio. Broadcasting used larger transmitters and more substantial antennas, but otherwise they had a lot in common. Broadcast engineers and DJs were often hams who just wanted to get paid for what we loved to do. And we often made our own equipment, especially when it wasn’t commercially available or considered too expensive to buy. You often saw staff-built control panels and audio interface boxes, but I’ve seen homebrew FM automation systems, audio mixers, TV master control switchers, and all forms of interface control systems. The 1950s through 1990s were times when labor was relatively cheaper, there was less competition, and leveraged buyouts hadn’t yet gotten underway.

Today’s broadcast engineer is more likely to have been a computer tinkerer than a ham radio tinkerer. Just as most hams are appliance operators who more configure software and hardware systems than make radios from scratch, so are stations now made with modular computers that require skills to assemble them into working systems, but not at component level.

Ham radio may seem to be increasingly irrelevant in light of the ease of worldwide internet communication, but the number of licensees keep gaining. With the new digital modes, there are numerous interesting specialties to explore. I dabble in summer VHF “e-skip,” PSK modes, and sideband ragchews.But more importantly, I have fantastic new ham friends with whom I share not only Field Day, but life in general.

I have two teenagers who certainly think that ham radio is irrelevant in the internet age, but seem to spend a lot of time sending and receiving short messages on their miniature 800MHz transceivers.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate the hams among us. Some are not active, but many are, and some do remarkable things with their ham hobby. Here are a few in the San Diego broadcasting market you might know:

K6AM John Barcroft, ex-KGB/KPQP Chief Engineer, San Diego
KG6QAN, Mike Curran, San Diego County Board of Education Engineer, San Diego
N6QEK, Steve Frick, Clear Channel Communications Engineer, El Cajon
W6VR, Bob Gonsett, owner of Communications General Corporation, RF consultant, Fallbrook
AB6CQ, Albert Gordon, Del Mar
KG6VFU, Dave Hassell, XETV Engineer, Encinitas
W7GAS, Walter Johnson, Telcom Design Corp. Owner, Jamul
KC6CLN, Tim Lange, Cox Cable Technician, El Cajon
N6OEI, Matt Lunati, Combined Wireless Owner, La Mesa
KD6GMW, Leon Messenie, KPBS Director of Engineering, La Mesa
WA9UGS, Steve Moreen, RF Specialities of California President, San Diego
KG6HSQ, Ronald Patten, broadcast engineer, Fallbrook
KF6YB, Oscar Quintanilla, Cox Cable Engineer, La Mesa
KI6ASX, Paul Redfield, XETV Director of Engineering, La Mesa
KF6ATM, James Schechter, RF engineer, Valley Center
W6GLS, Gary Stigall, TV Magic CTO, San Diego
KF6OGF, Kenneth Tondreau, Grass Valley Sales Representative, Calabasas
K6OBS, Richard Warren, wsRadio Manager, San Diego
AF6AV, Phil Wells, past CE KYXY/KJQY, San Diego
NE6I, Dennis Younker, Cox Cable Video Engineering Supervisor, Spring Valley

Lessons Learned During the San Diego DTV Transition

San Diego was among the largest TV markets in the U.S. to have many of its major TV stations transition to digital only the evening of February 17. Major station groups backed out of their plans to transition early when it fell out of political favor. Locally, KFMB-DT needed to get off their low power provisional DTV channel. McGraw-Hill and Tribune surely wanted the electric meter to stop spinning so fast supporting two transmitters in an adverse economy at KGTV and KSWB, respectively.

The vast majority of the San Diego County estimated 78,000 households with over-the-air TVs made the transition without trouble. There were hundreds who needed help.

Speaking to dozens of viewers and other chief engineers in town, here’s what I learned:

Shutting Down the Analog Transmitters in Two Batches May Not Have Been Such a Bad Idea – Unprepared viewers woke up on February 18 with fewer TV stations, but they were able to receive some, and were motivated to then upgrade their systems to receive all the stations. No one was left without a source of TV news.

The “Night Light” Worked – KSWB reported fewer calls after keeping a repeating 30 minute instructional video about the DTV transition running on their analog channel 69 station for a week.

It’s About the Antenna – With at least four transmitter sites and rough terrain, it takes a skilled engineer to design and build a proper home antenna system in this market. The vast majority of callers were trying to receive all local English-speaking TV stations with a single indoor “rabbit ears and UHF loop” style antenna. With the few exceptions of people located in the center of the city in wood-framed homes using converters or receivers with the latest generation, highly equalization-adapting chipsets—receiving TV this way doesn’t work. A weak signal tolerated before became a blank screen at the bottom of the digital cliff.

A Few Brave Souls Want Information on Real Antenna Systems – A handful of callers wanted advanced information on fringe area reception. With only a couple of antennas capable of sufficient front-to-back ratios to eliminate co-channel interference from Los Angeles, this information means the difference between receiving all stations and receiving a few.

Not Ready for VHF – Many viewers had adapted to the UHF-only pre-transition market with their bow-tie array antennas, only to find that they now had to replace those antennas to receive new DTV stations on channels 8 and 10. Many viewers were told that the best system is a combination of high-band VHF antenna aimed permanently at Mt. Soledad and a UHF antenna aimed south toward Mt. San Miguel and Mt. San Antonio, but few wanted to actually go to the trouble of doing so.

Where Did the Converters Go? – Inventories of digital converters were spotty during the week leading up to the transition. Many stores appeared to have run out of converters for fear of having excess inventory. Anecdotal evidence told us that stores south of downtown fared worse, with large numbers of converters perhaps being sold to Mexican citizens for use in Tijuana, where many people are bilingual, they can receive large numbers of digital stations, and Asian imports carry a burdensome duty.

The Channel Master Converter Got Good Marks – The DigitalStream boxes got hot enough to make you not only wonder about their electrical consumption, but about their safety without a fire extinguisher nearby. The Zenith DTT900’s picked up an extra few stations from LA on my old log-periodic, but it didn’t have an S-video output. The Channel Master could be had at Fry’s sometimes for a 10-spot and a government card, but it had the S-video output. Andrew Lombard at KGTV said it was his favorite (although it doesn’t have analog passthrough).

Scan and Rescan, Then Scan Again – Viewers were told to rescan on February 18 for digital versions of channels 8 and 10. But that wasn’t enough. If a viewer had an antenna on a rotator, they had to perform a complete “first birthday” style scan to wipe channels 8 and 10 from their analog reception memory positions and record the Mt. Soledad stations. Then they had to scan in ADD mode for UHF stations on Mt. San Miguel. Then, depending on location, might have to scan a third time to receive English language XETV in Tijuana. Some TVs behave differently, so rescanning could delete previously found stations. Viewers with those TVs had to be instructed on how to restrict their scans to a set of physical channels while ADDing. Got that, Mom?

What Do You Mean Channel 6 is really 23? – Related to the previous item, viewers needed to know the physical channel numbers in order to properly scan channels and make sure they have the right antenna pointed in the right direction.

So Tell Me Once Again How to Wire My Old VCR to the Converter? – As consumers tried to adapt their older technology, they felt left behind when trying to integrate the new converters to their trusty recorders. Conducting automatic recordings with unmanned channel changes, we’ve learned, requires a Dish DTVPal or Zinwell ZAT-970A converter and careful reading of the manual.

I Give Up! – Cable, fiber, and satellite providers ran a heavy ad campaign to promote the simplicity and reliability of reception using their systems, capturing perhaps 6,000 exasperated OTA viewers. Many subscribed to the lowest tier of service, but providers were glad to have them.

Lifeline Rates are Not Published – Viewers calling TV stations were not aware that they could get all local TV stations, in HD, using the lowest tiered rates on cable.

Some Stations Really Put Out – KGTV collected excess government converter cards from their viewers and redistributed them to viewers who had requested too late. They also had instruction materials from each of the popular makes of converters and TVs in order to help people with rescanning. KFMB Stations Director of Engineering Rich Lochmann and yours truly at XETV went on the air to explain rescanning. KSWB produced the nightlight video.

Making Waves: RFI – My Unwanted Visitor

Considering the number of switching supplies these days powering everything from cell phone chargers to computers and televisions, you’d think radio frequency interference (RFI) would be a bigger problem. I dabble in ham radio just enough to notice that, except for a few birdies, overall HF spectrum is generally pretty quiet.

Our channel 6 transmitter just south of the border is most vulnerable being low band VHF, relatively distant for most US homes, and dependent on AM receivers for video. We do occasionally get the viewer phone call suggesting we fix the swirling video noise on his TV. I’ve never received any confirmation that anyone followed my suggestions to turn off appliances or even circuit breakers to find the source of the noise—just an occasional repeat call to say that the noise in Lakeside is still there, suggesting my work there remains.

Recently, though, I was surprised to find that my brand new Sears DieHard power tool “Multi-chemistry” battery charger produces enough RF to effectively overcome all incoming signals at home, pretty much DC to daylight. The entire AM band sounds like hash, the FM band is a screechy mess, and many of the ham bands have multiple carriers rapidly sweeping through all frequencies as heard with my fan dipole antenna some 60 feet away. I can’t imagine that this Made in China beauty, model 315.259260 passed FCC Part 15 subpart B testing, but I haven’t yet filed a complaint.

Have you discovered a similar hash transmitter in your home or neighborhood?

Getting Greener with Age

You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to appreciate the value of going green in your broadcast facilities. With energy costs now outpacing inflation by a wide margin, saving energy and recycling are obvious expense cut targets.

If you are planning a new facility, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification makes sense for long term energy cost savings as well as public relations value. But you don’t have to go all that way to shave costs while not overwhelming your capital budget.

Utility companies are motivated to boost energy savings. Less demand means fewer generation plant and transmission facilities investments required. And public utility commissions are demanding accountability in conservation efforts during rate setting hearings. The state government and local utility provide generous tax credits or rebates on efficiency projects as long as you follow the rules. There are some initiatives in which the utility will hire someone to come in and upgrade your facility at no cost. I’ve attended San Diego Gas and Electric’s Energy Symposiums for the past two years and have been surprised at the depth of the presentations and sheer number of low cost energy savings products and services available. The continental breakfast, full lunch, and door prizes weren’t bad, either. Check out their website for more information.

What you can do

Insulation

For our facility, this was the low hanging fruit. We could stand on the third floor on a sunny day and literally feel the heat radiating down from the roof. In 2005, I had R30 insulation stuffed between the metal roof trusses and that changed the atmosphere on the upper floor drastically. SDG&E later announced rebates on commercial R30 insulation upgrades, and they’re still available. Investment payback depends on a few factors, but it looks like our investment will break even next summer.

Lighting

Lighting takes a surprising proportion of your facility’s electric bill. SDG&E will pay to upgrade your fluorescent lamp ballasts to low consumption types, and someone will just show up to count the fixtures and change them out. Consider installing proximity detectors for less used lights in hallways, break rooms, and restrooms. For exterior wall offices, if you have the proper window film or awnings, you may be able to turn off your office lighting altogether and save on air conditioning at the same time. I like awnings on south and west facing windows because you can block the high summer sun and pass the low winter sun. If your building uses single pane glass, you can get rebates on window film installation in San Diego. Single story buildings can use skylights and light tunnels. Some people like to use simple task lighting instead of harsh overhead fluorescents, so passing out a few LED desk lamps may save substantial money over a few years.

TV Studio lighting is going through a revolution, converting to fluorescent and LED fixtures. You’d be surprised at how well manufacturers are addressing the colorimetry, dimming control, and focus issues. The fluorescent guys claim LEDs have a way to go with color spectrum, but I liked the demo I saw at the NAB Convention. The White House Press Room recently converted to LEDs, as did some CBS studios. This is huge because you not only save on lighting power, but air conditioning.

In a session on LED lighting, I learned about new parking lot lamps that detect motion and turn on in groups to serve only those active regions. This not only decreases consumption and light pollution, but increases security since bodies in motion activate lighting. You can change your exit signs with LED versions to save 95% of consumption. And if your signs are near a window, the luminescent versions need no power at all.

Air Conditioning

I was bothered by coming into our news studio unoccupied during the day and on weekends and finding the air conditioner on full cool. You can’t put that function dependably on a timer because the studio might be occupied at odd hours with production. And putting in a manual thermostat means that it will be invariably left at full blast cool. Our HVAC management program, still running MS-DOS, just wasn’t smart enough to deal with more intelligence. So we had our junior engineer Mina Zaki program a small embedded computer to take inputs from a lighting current transformer, an exit door, and a proximity detector. Now, when the studio lights aren’t on, the HVAC backs off from full blast to a comfortable room temperature. And if no one is detected in the room or someone leaves the hall door open, it backs off to an even higher temp. We’re saving about $8,000 a year in electricity costs.

There are huge advances in facility controls and HVAC science that lead to reduced consumption. New chillers, controls that use proximity detection, and more efficient heat exchangers and motors all help to save.

Generators

SDG&E has just adopted Critical Peak Pricing, meaning that your medium or large business will be hit with big rates during critical system consumption peak periods this summer. Unfortunately, broadcasters can’t readily control their consumption during hot summer afternoons–the 5 PM news must go on. What can you do?

Our facility was just outfitted with generator controls and pollution filters that will take us to go off the grid during times when SDG&E determines there is a “Critical Peak.” Their contractor installed all the equipment and will maintain and fuel our 600 kW generator at no cost to us. This will allow us to bypass the critical peak rates and still use the generator during emergency power outages.

The only thing green about the peak generation program is that the utility can avoid installing new generators. Given some capital, I’d rather install solar or fuel cell generators and really cut the bill.

Last year, we toured the fuel cell generators at the Sheraton Hotels on Harbor Island. They’re truly off the grid except during cell maintenance periods, and they use the excess heat for their pools. Jeff Cox of FuelCell Energy explained that you may be able to do the conversion at zero, or near zero cost. There are investment companies willing to lease the power plants to you for about what you pay for your energy bills. The “gotcha” for us was that the fuel cells work best under constant load. A TV station with incandescent studio lamps going on and off at various times means you would have to plan the generators for the lightest load, and the savings may not be there. A hotel, with its guests using air conditioning by day and lights in random numbers by night is a nearly ideal load, as would be a multiple shift manufacturing plant.

The climate in San Diego inland seems to say solar is the way to go, but the payback is still pretty far out. There’s nothing to keep you from installing a few cells on the roof and applying for subsidies, but cell chemistry is changing rapidly enough that I’m staying on the sideline for the time being.

Data Processing

Our IT guys started putting some of our servers on VMWare recently. The idea is to consolidate your servers to maximize the processing so that you use one processor running at 40% duty cycle rather than, say, six each running at 5 to 8% duty cycle. It turns out that this trend is huge, and processing intensive companies are realizing millions in savings in power and cooling costs, not to mention the savings just in square footage of IT racks. You may not want to do this for critical media playout and capture servers, but everything else can share.

Are you ducting your heat away from your racks? If you are just cooling a room full of racks without consideration to thermodynamics, you are wasting a huge amount of energy. Middle Atlantic has a great white paper on thermal management that will help you keep from reheating waste air.

How do your IT facility policies deal with energy? For one, with Windows, you can now enforce desktop energy savings by having your monitors go black after periods on non-use. You can also have processors hibernate and have their hard drives spin down.

Just Do It

Being able to turn in a few thousand dollars of expense savings for your plant can’t hurt your career. And know that you don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of resources to help out for free or on the cheap, so you have no excuse.

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.