Here Come the Converter Boxes – UPDATED

Got my TV Converter Box $40 Coupon for my 1995 Sony TV upstairs the other day. Already spent it on a dandy DigitalStream DSP7700T from Newcast Distributing in Calabasas. In mid-May they were out of product.  Similarly, I tried to buy the Channel Master box at Fry’s, but they weren’t ready to take coupons yet. For the system to be five months into the coupon program, there seems to be a lot of ramping up yet to do while our coupons approach expiration.

Options

Wikipedia has an exhaustive, if sparsely detailed, listing of Coupon-Eligible Converter Boxes. Take a good look at the specs available.

The first thing I notice in comparing models is that not many provide analog pass through. Too bad for the two remaining full-power analog English language, seven full power Spanish stations, and at least five lower power foreign language stations serving the San Diego market. The NTIA didn’t think of this in making the specifications?

My DigitalStream box bypasses analog when you turn off the power. That’s okay.

So I can at least take advantage of DTV’s better color processing and feed the component or at least Y/C (S-video) ports on my TV–right? Nope, not unless you buy the Channel Master CM-7000 or Apex (for which I could find no active distributor).

What about Smart Antenna processing for our market that has four major mountaintop transmission sites? A few boxes list that feature, but what consumer is going to know to look for it? Or look for a Smart Antenna?

So what did I get for my $41, including tax, shipping, and coupon discount? The DigitalStream DSP7700T found all the local digital stations with a broadband log-periodic pointed at Tijuana from Kearny Mesa, plus it found KCBS and KNBC off the back side! KNBC was on the edge of its capabilities, though. The menu is attractive, it includes a signal level bar readout, closed captioning, EPG titles, and stereo audio. I was most amazed by the reception under obvious multipath conditions since KGTV 25 and KFMB 7 were perfectly decoded off the side of the Blonder-Tongue UHF log.

June 1 UPDATE

I bought a second box, the Zenith DTT900, for $24 ($60 + tax – $40 coupon). No analog bypass or S-video, but it runs cooler. Hooked up to my 9dBi gain log-periodic and got all locals plus just about every LA station that didn’t have a San Diego co-channel. They faded somewhat later, but one might be able to overcome that with a gain antenna.

I also learned that Dish Network is offering a $40 box through their dealers with a net cost of sales tax only. Not bad. They want to ratchet up their customer base during all the box confusion.

Radio Shack’s website now lists four boxes including the DigitalStream I bought elsewhere.

A few calls have come in at work. Interestingly, most ask if we have a digital channel. Our web FAQ has been well buried by the station’s webmaster, so I can sort of understand.

A Little Help From Our Friends

Many thanks to the sponsors who help make our local chapter successful. To date, these vendors have each contributed cash to our treasury this year:

  • Computer Modules,
  • JVC,
  • Microwave Radio Corporation,
  • Piper Digital,
  • Western Technical Services,
  • Willy’s Electronics,
  • Broadcast Connection,
  • Dielectric Communications,
  • Grass Valley Thomson, and
  • Bext

We’ve received additional support in the form of valuable door prizes and accommodations from TV Magic, Rohde & Schwarz, WireCAD, SCMS, and Sangean Radio.

Our costs are sufficiently low enough that the chapter hopes to make a donation this year to the Ennes Scholarship Fund that helps put a deserving broadcast technology student through college.

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.

FM Jammer Taken Down

A call from a listener Friday, February 15, led Clear Channel’s local Director of Engineering, John Rigg, to go on a treasure hunt.

He was told that when listening to KHTS 93.3 MHz in a car on interstate 805 east of the University City neighborhood in San Diego, they heard a loud fluttering noise. The noise, also taking out 93.1, could be heard jamming 93.3 as far away as Kearny Mesa.

John and RF specialist Stephen Frick grabbed their spectrum analyzer and a yagi and headed out to track down the interference. It didn’t take Steve and his directional antenna long to find a possible source of the signal off Whipple Avenue just three blocks away from the freeway. A tall mast and suspicious antenna loomed some 70 feet above a home in the neighborhood.  John knocked on the door there and was loudly told from inside that no one was home.

John called the FCC’s local office Monday. As early as Wednesday, an inspector told him that the owner of the antenna was known from previous contact, and after conducting a home visit, the jamming noise disappeared.

KGTV Gets New CE

New York native Andrew Lombard joined McGraw-Hill’s KGTV as the new Chief Engineer. He follows Ron Eden, who has been out on disability lately due to health problems.

For the past 8 years, Andrew served as Director of Engineering at WPTZ and WNNE in Burlington, VT-Plattsburgh, NY, a Hearst-Argyle Television company.

When pried for personal information, he listed his accomplishments: "Bringing two HDTV stations on line; regionalizing 2 stations and five remote locations into one control, monitoring, and programming location; being among the first to adopt compressed ASI streams over microwave; progressing stations out of tape-based to server-based video editing and transfer; and turning a small town TV station into a first-rate facility.

Andrew says he started 24 years ago in satellite electronics in the Air Force in Sunnyvale CA. After four years, he landed his first TV job back home in upstate New York at WCFE-PBS. And he’s done everything from mobile teleproduction, to cable origination, to DTH satellite ops.

He says he loves sailing, motorcycling, and country music. He has a family back in New York that will join him this spring.

Andrew also said he looks forward to joining the SBE chapter this year since he didn’t have a local chapter in the neighborhood back east.

Society of Broadcast Engineers, San Diego