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  • Jerianne Timmerman 10:00 am on October 27, 2017 Permalink  

    Modernizing the Mother of All Media Regulations 

    Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at long last announced its intention to reform its woefully outdated broadcast ownership rules. At its open meeting in November, the FCC plans to vote on an order eliminating the ban on owning a print newspaper and any radio or TV station in the same market; removing the restrictions on owning radio stations along with a TV station in the same market; revising the rule that very strictly limits the ownership of TV stations in local markets; and reversing its previous decision effectively banning the joint sale of even modest amounts of advertising time by two same-market TV stations. The FCC also plans to establish an incubator program to promote the ownership of broadcast outlets by new entrants and seeks comment on the details of that program. NAB has for decades supported measures, including an incubator program, to promote new entry and increased diversity in the broadcast industry.

    To say that these changes are past due is an understatement. The FCC has strictly regulated the local ownership of broadcast outlets since the World War II era. It adopted rules prohibiting the common ownership of TV stations serving substantially the same area in 1941, and similar rules for FM and AM stations in 1940 and 1943. Over three-quarters of a century later, the FCC still prohibits the common ownership of two TV stations in most markets. The two cross-ownership rules are positively youthful by comparison, dating only from the 1970s.

    Clearly, not every long-standing FCC rule should be eliminated or modified just because of its age. But the broadcast ownership rules fail to reflect today’s digital media marketplace, and the FCC’s past failures to update its rules flew in the face of Congress’ directive that the Commission must every four years determine whether its rules remain “necessary in the public interest as the result of competition” and “repeal or modify” those that are not.

    Most importantly, these rules for years have caused real harm to daily newspapers and their readers, the public’s free, over-the-air broadcast services and local TV stations’ ability to compete against consolidated pay-TV and broadband providers and huge social media and technology companies.

    The absurdity of the broadcast ownership rules is made clear when juxtaposed against the FCC’s treatment of every other industry within its purview. For example, about a year after the FCC refused to grant a six-month temporary waiver of the radio/TV cross-ownership rule to facilitate the assignment of a single full-power TV station and related satellite and low-power stations, it approved the merger of AT&T and DIRECTV and then the combination of Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House. Notably, no FCC media ownership rules stood in the way of those massive mergers creating two pay-TV and broadband behemoths.

    The Commission even has maintained its now 42-year-old ban on radio or TV broadcasters owning or significantly investing in print newspapers, despite the precipitous decline of the newspaper industry, as well chronicled over the past decades including by a website called Newspaper Death Watch. While giant social media, technology and pay-TV/broadband companies face no barriers in acquiring daily newspapers, the owner of just a single radio or TV station remains barred from having an ownership interest in a local paper.

    The FCC’s past decisions retaining the local ownership rules depended upon the agency closing its eyes and covering its ears to avoid recognizing what is clear to any consumer with a TV remote or a smart phone – that local broadcast stations and newspapers do not exist in a vacuum and that broadcasters and newspaper owners must compete with myriad other outlets for viewers, listeners, readers and advertisers. Indeed, in other contexts, the FCC has proclaimed that the “Internet is America’s most important platform for economic growth, innovation, competition [and] free expression.”

    The action yesterday, in contrast, shows that the FCC finally not only recognizes the realities of the 21st century media marketplace, but also is willing to take the manufactured political heat that will undoubtedly accompany this update of the rules. While some opponents of any rule changes likely will pretend that the FCC’s action was undertaken for the benefit of one TV station company (which doesn’t even own any newspapers), reform of these restrictions are, in fact, essential for the broadcast industry to flourish.

    Political rhetoric aside, actual evidence – including dozens of studies by the FCC and private parties – shows that broadcast stations cross-owned with newspapers produce more and higher quality news and informational programming and that TV stations with higher revenues produce more local news and public affairs programming. Combinations between two TV stations, between radio and TV stations and between broadcast stations and newspapers create economies of scale permitting broadcast outlets to maintain or increase their provision of local news, weather, sports and emergency journalism. And make no mistake – broadcast services offered free, over-the-air to the public are costly to provide. Covering a significant emergency or natural disaster, such as a hurricane, can easily cost stations hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the expense of coverage (e.g., overtime for personnel, equipment, etc.) and advertising lost due to 24/7 coverage of the emergency. The public clearly values this service, as a survey following Hurricane Harvey found that 89 percent of respondents in Texas cited local broadcast TV as their top choice for information about the storm.

    Stations struggling to compete against much larger and less regulated entities, and lacking the necessary financial and personnel resources, are simply unable to offer extensive local services. TV stations in medium and small markets lacking a substantial advertising base often are unable to maintain local news operations at all. As long ago as 2002, the trade press and publications like the Columbia Journalism Review were documenting the elimination of local news at stations across the country, due to economic stresses. The reformed local TV rule will permit two local stations to combine and jointly bear the substantial costs of maintaining local news operations, improving their weather and sports coverage, obtaining popular entertainment programming, purchasing equipment and upgrading their plant. Empirical studies have shown that TV stations commonly owned or in a joint services agreement with another station in the same market are more likely to carry local news and public affairs programming.

    Despite the availability of many other options, consumers value their local TV and radio stations. As the cost of pay-TV services inexorably rise, more viewers are cutting the cord and increasingly relying in whole or in part on over-the-air broadcasting. And the Pew Research Center last year found that civic engagement is strongly tied to local news habits, especially the frequent consumption of local TV news. Modernizing the FCC’s ownership rules and other outdated regulations that unnecessarily hobble local broadcast stations will benefit consumers in communities across the country. As the Commission concluded 25 years ago when loosening its local radio ownership rules, a broadcaster’s “ability to function in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ is fundamentally premised on its economic viability.” NAB and its members are pleased that the current Commission has recognized this basic truth.

     
  • Sam Matheny 2:38 pm on October 18, 2017 Permalink  

    Setting the record straight on FM radio in iPhones 

    In recent months, the Southeast U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been pummeled by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  The wildfires in California have been equally devastating.  These storms and fires have wreaked havoc on communications networks and challenged public safety officials’ ability to get lifeline information to affected residents.

    At a time when many Americans have come to rely on their smartphones, massive cellular outages were suffered from Texas to Florida on an even greater scale than in Superstorm Sandy five years ago, and California has also suffered major outages in key locations.  In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it may take weeks and even months to fully restore cellular service because of the damage to the electric grid.  This has been a painful reminder of the need for a redundant and pervasive communications infrastructure, especially in times of disaster and emergency.

    Radio, television, cellular, satellite, and other communications networks all have a role to play in a crisis.  In the wake of these storms, a passionate discussion about activating FM radio in smartphones – and, specifically, Apple’s iPhone – has emerged. This discussion was started by those most impacted by Irma when the South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorialized on the issue and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida called for activating FM chips in smartphones.  FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also issued a public statement calling for Apple to activate FM chips to promote public safety and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also weighed in with her support.

    There has been a good bit of technical back and forth since these calls to “light up the chip,” and this is my effort to try and set the record straight.

    Here is the BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front

    Apple has built and offered a wonderful FM app in their iPod Nano for many years.  They know how to make FM work, and work well, in their mobile devices.  Apple even wrote its own Nano app that allows the user to pause live radio and buffer up to 15 minutes of content.

    However, Apple has specifically chosen not to offer this functionality in their iPhone. Indeed, Apple has disabled FM chips despite the capability being available on the communications module within the iPhone.  This means other app developers cannot offer FM apps either.

    Apple CEO Tim Cook hails from Mobile, Alabama and attended Auburn University. Mobile has been impacted by at least 10 different hurricanes since 1969 and that was prior to Nate, which brought a nearly six-foot storm surge and flooding, so I have to believe Mr. Cook has a personal appreciation for the damage these storms can inflict.  We invite him and Apple to reconsider activating FM radio in iPhones, and we stand ready to work together to enable this important service.

    Here are the details

    1. FM capability is in the iPhone

    Tear-down reports from multiple research firms indicate the iPhone has long used a communications module that supports three key wireless networks: WiFi, Bluetooth, and FM radio.  NAB has been commissioning tear-down reports from ABI Research on the top-selling smartphones since 2012.  In the last report we received, the iPhone was the only such smartphone that did not have FM activated on at least one major U.S. carrier.

    1. Apple deliberately disables FM

    Apple has chosen to only use the WiFi and Bluetooth aspects of the communications module.  They have admitted as much for all phones through the iPhone 6 series, at which point they claim FM capability was removed from the 7 series and 8 series. Yet, tear-down reports indicate the iPhone 8 contains the same 4357 chip family, which manufacturer Broadcom clearly states includes an integrated FM radio core. You can check out these independent tear-down reports:

    1. Apple purposefully does not connect the antenna

    While the communications module has FM capability, it must also have access to an antenna to receive this signal.  This is commonly done via the wire for your headphones.  Again, Apple enables the antenna for the Nano, so it has the experience and expertise to make FM radio capability work.  And from a competitive standpoint, other manufacturers of best-selling smartphones such as Samsung, LG, and HTC have enabled FM radio reception in the U.S. and around the world.

    1. This is a global issue

    FM radio is a global standard in much the same way as WiFi and Bluetooth are.  That is one of the reasons why chip manufacturers combine all three capabilities into a single module.  It can and should be activated everywhere.  Apple creates global product SKUs for their products, so it fits very well with their production model. Other smartphone manufacturers are doing this as well.

    1. This is not NAB vs Apple

    Various media outlets, politicians, and regulators raised the issue in the wake of the recent hurricanes.  We are certainly an interested party and we believe Apple and their customers would benefit from “lighting up the chips” in future iPhones.  NAB is not alone – national and international bodies, governments, and institutions share our belief in the importance of activated FM radio chips in smartphones:

    1. Apple’s ‘know-how’

    Apple is a very successful company, and as evidenced by its Nano product, it knows how to do FM radio well.  Activating the FM capabilities in their phones would be simple for them to accomplish if they wanted to, and I believe it would be supported by consumers.

     

    Here is why it matters

    • People turn to radio in times of crises.  In the days following Hurricane Harvey, NextRadio, the popular FM radio application on Android smartphones, saw a 160% increase in listening.
    • During Irma, NextRadio usage was even higher. In the Fort Myers area alone, listenership was up 1,127% from the average day.
    • In Puerto Rico, there continues to be widespread cellular service outages following the storm, leaving many residents without access to vital information.
    • The Japanese communications ministry reports that radio was the number one source for news the day of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
    • FM radio consumes approximately five-times less battery than streaming, so it is very battery friendly, which is especially important in times of long power outages and poor communication.
    • FM radio in smartphones is free and available to everyone, regardless of their data plan.
    • FEMA has designated radio stations that operate especially hardened transmission facilities as the primary source of initial emergency information so they can be the lifeline service that everyone can depend on.
    • During the California wildfires, there have been reports about widespread problems with the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system for mobile devices, which has left many residents without critical information about fast-approaching danger.

    Bottom line

    NAB welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with Apple, even though Apple doesn’t need our help from an engineering perspective.  Apple’s iPhone is a phenomenal device and does so many things well. We hope they recognize that activating the FM capability would make it even better for all of their customers around the world.

     
  • Patrick McFadden 10:36 am on July 5, 2017 Permalink  

    2 Fast 2 Spurious – Microsoft’s Vacant Channel Plan is a Sequel We Don’t Need 

    Summer movie season is well underway, bringing a fresh crop of would-be blockbusters in the form of original movies and familiar sequels. Sequels, of course, are a tricky proposition. For every sequel that arguably improved on the original (“Godfather II,” “Before Sunset,” “Magic Mike XXL”) dozens more serve as stark reminders of the perils of revisiting a played-out concept (I see you hiding in the corner, “Speed 2”).

    Microsoft is currently reminding fans why some sequels should never be made. The latest entry in the tech giant’s Vacant Channel franchise is yet another heist movie based on a con game that’s too clever by half.

    According to Microsoft, it is urgent that the Federal Communications Commission reserve a vacant UHF white space channel in every market nationwide following the post-auction repack of broadcast television stations, and Microsoft maintains this reservation can be accomplished without causing harm to television stations.

    That’s nonsense on its face. The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough. If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, “you must reserve that chair for me, but don’t worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,” you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations. Microsoft is telling the Commission: (1) it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that (2) there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else. One of those assertions is untrue.

    Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology. But the truth is the Commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600 MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince the Commission to give Microsoft a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.

    Microsoft also already made this play a decade ago. The company asked for spectrum and the Commission granted it, free of charge, in 2010. Since then – despite elaborate promises of investment and innovation – Microsoft and others have done next to nothing to invest in or make worthwhile use of that spectrum.

    White space innovation and deployment continue to be largely mythical. Fun fact: there are probably more shots of gear shifts in the first seven Fast and the Furious movies – 311 – than there are white spaces devices providing Internet service in the United States.[1]

    Microsoft undoubtedly has dreams of a Vacant Channel expanded universe. “Vacant Channel 2: Wireless Boogaloo.” “Vacant Channel 3: I Still Don’t Know What You Did With That Spectrum Last Summer.” “Vacant Channel 4: Clippy’s Revenge.” (Spoiler alert: Gal Gadot defeats Clippy with a staple remover.)

    But the truth is, we don’t need any more sequels. We already know how they all end – with unfulfilled promises and guilt over eating too much popcorn. The Commission has better things to do this summer.

    [1] The TV White Spaces database has around 800 devices total across the nation. Based on the number of test devices and the locations of the registered devices, we estimate that less than 300 are actually providing Internet service to homes.

     
  • Patrick McFadden 11:36 am on May 3, 2017 Permalink  

    Rules, Schmules 

    Although it’s one of only four nationwide wireless carriers and has its corporate roots in a foreign state-run monopoly, T-Mobile fancies itself the brash outsider in the wireless marketplace. The company touts itself as the “Un-carrier.” It doesn’t play by the same rules as other wireless carriers, and it’s not afraid to say so.

    Literally:

    tmobile

    Pursuing that self-image can be a slippery slope, however. Like a teenage boy playacting at being a rebel by growing his hair out, wearing a leather jacket to class and stealing a car for a joyride, T-Mobile sometimes overdoes it. For example, T-Mobile was recently cited for marketing “unlimited” data plans while in reality throttling heavy data users and has also been the subject of recent stories alleging fraudulent, predatory cramming and upselling practices. One might suggest that the company has gotten a wee bit carried away with this whole “breaking the rules of wireless” thing.

    T-Mobile also has a small problem with accuracy, or what some might call the truth. Let’s not forget that T-Mobile is the company that went to absurd lengths in stomping its magenta sneakers about the need for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set aside spectrum in the incentive auction for everyone not named AT&T and Verizon, going so far as to come up with the world’s most pathetic superhero movie to try to make its point. According to T-Mobile, this set-aside was critical to prevent Verizon and AT&T from foreclosing the Un-carrier’s access to “low-band” spectrum.

    Was it though? At the end of the day, Verizon and Sprint didn’t even bid in the auction, and AT&T barely scratched the auction’s surface, spending a fraction of what T-Mobile did. Oops. Our bad, guys.

    Since no one seemed to notice that T-Mobile was full of, let’s say, “magenta,” T-Mobile figured it would raise its game. The company hired an economist to estimate how many stations would be repacked following the auction. Never mind that the economist in question was previously best known for predicting that wireless carriers would bid $84 billion in the incentive auction. Yes, that guy definitely had a lot of credibility.

    Has anyone pointed out that T-Mobile and its trade association had it all wrong? Nope.

    At this point, we are all almost daring T-Mobile to stay on its “Un-carrier” or “We-don’t-follow-any-rules” roll. As Charlie Ergen would say, as long as no one notices, why not go bigger, bolder?

    Taking a page from the DISH auction playbook, T-Mobile’s CEO, John Legere, decided to blatantly ignore the FCC’s strict rules against talking about the auction results before the end of its official “quiet period,” and instead boasted about T-Mobile’s self-proclaimed success. While other bidders dutifully obeyed the FCC’s mandatory quiet period, T-Mobile figured that it had gotten away with just about everything else, so why bother containing its excitement.

    We’ll see if the government has anything to say about T-Mobile’s willingness to flaunt its rules in this instance and whether the powers that be will finally catch on to T-Mobile’s pattern of “Un-following” the rules and playing fast and loose with “Un-facts.” Yes, the FCC should take experienced auction player T-Mobile to task for its plain violation of the rules. But the government should also take a moment to ponder the pattern and wonder just how much it can take T-Mobile at its “Un-word.”

    What the FCC does next has important implications for broadcasters and their viewers across the country. T-Mobile’s latest project is to cram – no pun intended, I swear – down everyone’s throat a nearly wholesale reorganization of broadcast television stations in record time. Never mind if it relies on faulty assumptions and heavy handshakes and leaves underserved communities without access to over-the-air television or radio. Hey, rules are meant to be broken, right?

    Trouble is, they aren’t. T-Mobile should be held to the same standard as everyone else. The FCC can no longer rely on T-Mobile’s now consistently dubious claims. The company has fallen in love with its Un-carrier status so much so that it believes the rules – the FCC’s, the Federal Trade Commission’s or the laws of physics – no longer matter. But the rules are there to protect American consumers, and we have little doubt this FCC will now enforce them.

     
  • Patrick McFadden 11:05 am on February 27, 2017 Permalink  

    Radio Silence 

    Relocating television stations to new channels following the close of the TV broadcast spectrum incentive auction will be the most complex transition the Federal Communications Commission has ever overseen. We know that many stations will be repacked, we know that there are constraints on the resources available to perform this work, and we know there are hugely complex interference relationships between broadcast television stations.

    But we don’t yet have a full picture as to which stations will be moving to new channels, and what the ramifications of those moves will be. For example, many towers that are home to repacked television stations are also home to FM radio stations, which are not being repacked.

    During the incentive auction rulemaking, NAB and others asked the Commission to allow repacked television stations to reimburse other broadcasters, including FM stations located near repacked television stations, for costs those stations might incur during the repack. It seems reasonable to us that, if an FM station, an innocent bystander to the repack, needs to construct alternative facilities to stay on the air during repacking work performed on a nearby television station, this should be considered a reasonable expense associated with the repack. The FCC disagreed, citing the language of the legislation authorizing the incentive auction.

    Regardless, those FM stations and their millions of listeners are still there. They still face the real possibility that repacking may disrupt their operations, even though they have literally nothing to do with the incentive auction. Work on nearby television antennas may require FM stations to reduce power, or seek alternate facilities. A repacking plan that does not take FM stations into consideration risks depriving listeners of local radio on which they rely. The right answer is to coordinate repacking efforts to minimize disruption, while also reimbursing bystander stations for costs they incur to maintain service – not to make them collateral damage.

    Over the coming months, the scope of work for the repack will become increasingly clear. The FCC has already informed television stations, confidentially, of their new channel assignments, and in April we expect the FCC to release this information publicly, providing a more definite understanding of the post-auction landscape. A balanced, reasonable repacking plan will treat all stakeholders fairly, including all affected broadcast stations, whether they are repacked or not.

     
  • alisonneplokh 12:03 pm on February 13, 2017 Permalink  

    An Innovative Process for an Innovative Proceeding 

    Next Generation TV is all about finding new and innovative ways for broadcasters to reach the public. That’s why we think it’s very fitting that one of the proceedings Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai picked to pilot the FCC’s innovative approach to transparency is a proposal to move forward with Next Generation TV.

    This idea, first championed by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, dramatically increases transparency in the Commission’s processes. It has always been the case that interested stakeholders in Washington can speak to staff in the commissioners’ offices to get a good sense of what is in an item on circulation. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Frequently, those of us subject to the Commission’s rules can accept or even welcome the policy goal being advanced in an item, but complying with the specific rule as written by staff would be unnecessarily complex or burdensome. Without seeing the specific proposal before the Commission, stakeholders could only comment on broad outlines of a proposal.

    I also know how helpful this approach can be for Commission staff. As a former Commission staffer, I often longed for feedback from stakeholders on the feasibility of the rules we were preparing to adopt. Unfortunately, because my colleagues could not share the text of the item publicly, we were limited in our ability to get that feedback. Chairman Pai’s innovation changes that, allowing stakeholders to provide more helpful input and allowing Commission staff to ask more specific questions.

    Process reform like this can lead to tangible benefits down the road. When the Commission operates in the dark, it risks making avoidable mistakes that lead to petitions for reconsideration or litigation. This ties up Commission resources and is expensive and time consuming for industry and public interest groups alike. We’d much prefer the Commission get it right the first time, and increased transparency helps make that more likely.

    Of course, NAB doesn’t support every word of the draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. If we did, it would be hard to see a reason to support publishing a preview anyway. For example, the draft asks a lot of questions about a tuner mandate, something we and our co-petitioners agree would be counter-productive to the goal of a market-based transition. Additionally, the draft devotes a lot of space to retransmission consent arguments that have no bearing on enabling innovation in broadcast services, other than to stifle them. However, the opportunity to see the item before the Commission adopts it gives us a chance to provide thoughtful feedback and help the Commission frame the debate.

    We are thankful that we have had an opportunity to review the proposed rules before they are voted on to help ensure that the Commission’s proposals and questions make sense, and are even more excited about the prospect of having the same opportunity for draft Commission orders in the future. We applaud Commissioner O’Rielly for championing this approach and Chairman Pai for having the courage to implement it. We strongly believe the pilot will be a success.

     
  • christopherornelas 10:34 am on January 12, 2017 Permalink  

    Norway Not a Trendsetter for FM Radio 

    What’s not to like about Norway?

    Great ski slopes. Magical fjords. Ridiculously low crime rate. And, according to a 2013 United Nations report, #2 among the “Happiest Countries in the World” – aced out only by Denmark.

    But the Norwegian parliament’s forced turn-off of many FM analog radio stations in favor of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) – which began this week – is causing not just static, but outright anger. Oslo opinion polls indicate 66 percent of Norwegians oppose the shutdown, with only 17 percent in favor. The angst stems from the fact that the shutdown could leave tens of thousands of people without access to some of their favorite free and local radio stations.

    “We are simply not ready for this,” Ib Thomsen, a member of the Norwegian parliament told Reuters. “There are 2 million cars on Norwegian roads that don’t have DAB receivers. Millions of radios will stop working. So there is definitely a safety concern,” he said.

    In reality, not all of Norway’s analog radio stations are being phased off the air – it’s only the country’s “national” stations that will go dark. That means the five major radio services distributed over a network of FM transmitters across the country that reach close to 100 percent coverage of Norway’s citizens will all be shut down by the end of the year. These include three state-provided noncommercial services and two commercial services, all of which are being replaced by digital radio channels that have been simulcast with the FM network for the past several years.

    But over 200 independent, local FM stations across Norway will remain on air for at least the next five years, and could now enjoy a boost in listenership. (Whether these stations stick around on the FM dial after 2022 will be decided later.)

    Could It Happen Here?

    The Great Oslo Radio Experiment has prompted a smattering of press reports suggesting that America may eventually follow suit. So, pun intended, is Norway the tip of the iceberg?

    The answer: No. No. A thousand times – No.

    In fact, for American radio, this development is much ado about nothing. The difference between Norway radio and American radio is as stark as the Northern Lights versus fireworks on the Capitol Mall on the Fourth of July.

    Here’s why:

    • Norway has 5 million radio listeners; there are 268 million listeners in the U.S. every week;
    • Many of Norway’s radio stations are state-owned; in the U.S., commercial radio listening dominates the charts in most places.
    • Norway is converting to digital radio using a completely different technology than we are in the U.S.

    That last bullet point is especially important. Norway (along with much of the rest of Europe) long ago adopted a digital radio transition plan completely at odds with the plan adopted in the U.S.

    Norway requires two separate swaths of spectrum for radio – one for its FM stations and another for its digital radio channels. It costs the government (and broadcasters) extra money to run both services to deliver the same content. Turning off analog FM is apparently seen by the Norwegian parliament as a cost-saving efficiency – even though actual radio listeners in Norway are quite unhappy about losing this service.

    By contrast, we in the U.S. chose a different path to digital radio. Our system, “in-band, on channel digital” – better known now as HD Radio – uses identical spectrum and the same channels for both analog and digital services. Thus, there’s no cost-saving advantage to shutting down analog FM services in America. More than 2,300 radio stations in the U.S. have converted to HD Radio, which improves the radio listening experience and affords American radio stations a remarkable array of advanced capabilities.

    HD Radio’s growth is most apparent in the automobile. All 36 auto brands available in North America and more than 200 vehicle models, including 34 new model year 2017 cars, now have an installed HD Radio tuner, and the number grows every year.

    Bottom line: No way will America go Norway’s route and “turn off” FM radio. It’s just not going to happen, in my lifetime or yours.

     
  • alisonneplokh 9:55 am on January 6, 2017 Permalink  

    Google and Microsoft Continue Pushing Plan to Seize Channels That Actually Aren’t Vacant 

    As the broadcast TV spectrum incentive auction inches closer to its conclusion, Google’s so-called “vacant channel” (although more properly known as “Google channel”) proposal has once again crept out of the shadows. The proposal, for those who may have let this debacle fade from their memories, is that before thousands of low-power television stations and TV translators (we’ll just say LPTVs for simplicity) displaced by the incentive auction are allowed to find new channels to continue serving viewers, they must ensure there would be at least one channel available for unlicensed – or Google’s free – use. This time, the Open Technology Institute (OTI), Microsoft and Public Knowledge are carrying Google’s water. Perhaps inspired by the fall broadcast television lineup, Google and Microsoft are angling for “Designated Survivor” status.

    “Don’t worry,” they say, “our Google channel proposal won’t actually take LPTV stations off the air, as there is plenty of spectrum to go around. And besides, what is more important, television or internet?” Let’s unpack that argument a little.

    Plenty of spectrum to go around? If that were actually true, Google and Microsoft wouldn’t need a policy change; they could simply use the available space under the FCC’s existing TV white spaces rules. They know, however, that the incentive auction will send many LPTVs scrambling for new homes and that some markets are going to have such scarce spectrum availability that, even without finding homes for all of the LPTV stations, there will not be enough room for unlicensed operation in the TV band. To try to get around this unfortunate reality, in March, Google submitted a heavily flawed study that assumed the FCC would need to buy nearly twice as many stations as it must in reality to reach a conclusion that the impact would be minimal. Sure, if the government spends extra tens of billions of dollars to purchase spectrum, Google and Microsoft could get access to a little more “free” spectrum. And, of course, Google is conspicuously not bidding in the auction, either. Again, if Google was right – that its was a cost-free proposal – then what would be the point? Unlicensed devices can operate in the TV bands already where space is available. The Google channel proposal is really about turning away existing LPTV stations to make room for unlicensed Google devices.

    Which is more important? Usually that’s not even a question when you are addressing whether an unlicensed service should disrupt an incumbent licensed service, but okay, we’ll bite. Let’s first remember that, in 2008, Google promised “Wi-Fi on steroids” by the 2009 holiday season. Now having just concluded the 2016 holiday season, there are still fewer than 700 unlicensed devices operating in the TV bands, nationwide. Total. The TV white spaces rules have been in effect for nearly a decade, there are plenty of channels available and three times as many people bought the now-discontinued $10,000 18 karat gold Apple Watch than have bought TV white spaces devices.

    In contrast, there are hundreds of thousands of viewers relying on the signals of thousands of LPTV stations. For many people, LPTV is the sole source of televised news and entertainment. While unlicensed devices have others neighborhoods – 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, now 3.5 GHz – the spectrum at issue is television’s only home.

    Also, we can’t help but point out that because the “open” in Open Technology Institute apparently only refers to their level of disregard for television viewers throughout the country, OTI did not file in the dockets dedicated to the issues they have raised. The filing also includes references to discussions about eliminating critical protections for licensed operation in the TV bands and a flimsy dismissal of NAB’s analysis of errors in the white spaces databases on the basis that the nearly non-existent deployment of TV white spaces devices has not yet caused harmful interference. These are open issues in two separate dockets in which OTI failed to file.

    Now we are beginning to see why Oxford Dictionary labeled “post-truth” as the 2016 international word of the year. Hopefully, 2017 can be the year when truth doesn’t mean a lie, open doesn’t mean concealed from the public and unlicensed doesn’t mean kicking off licensed services upon which the public heavily relies.

     
  • Patrick McFadden 11:12 am on December 9, 2016 Permalink  

    ATVA’s New Trick: Slow Rolling Next Generation TV 

    The American Television Alliance (ATVA), one of the leading voices of the pay-TV industry, has a big problem. Up until now, ATVA’s primary raison d’être (that’s French for “how do we get people to keep funding us”) has been retransmission consent. When pay-TV companies want to resell programming from local television stations, they typically negotiate with local stations for that right. ATVA’s entire policy agenda revolved around trying to drive up its members’ profit margins by talking the government into interfering in private contractual negotiations on their behalf.

    Unfortunately, ATVA had a bad year in that regard. Not a routinely bad year, more of a Charlie Sheen meltdown kind of year. ATVA’s retransmission consent campaign fell completely flat.

    (In fairness, in order to prevail, ATVA would have to convince the government that your cable company is actually a sympathetic victim that just can’t quite squeeze enough money out of you every month. This was always a long shot.)

    Having failed to hoodwink regulators into profitable market manipulation, ATVA is desperately seeking to raison a little more être heading into 2017 to justify continued contributions from its pay-TV benefactors. And ATVA thinks it has just the ticket: stifling innovation to protect its members from competition.

    In April, broadcasters, together with representatives of the consumer electronics industry and public safety, asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow broadcasters to voluntarily use a new transmission standard that can offer better pictures, better sound, enhanced emergency alerting and expanded opportunities for diverse programming. It’s called Next Generation TV, and we think you’re going to love it.

    ATVA knows this. Some of its members are beginning to offer 4K, ultra-high-definition programming, as are over-the-top service providers. If you’ve shopped for a television set lately, you know that 4K capability is becoming ubiquitous. It certainly seems to be where the market is headed. The only way broadcasters can offer such programming, and thus the only way consumers have the option of receiving this programming for free, is if the FCC allows broadcasters to deploy Next Generation TV.

    And voila, ATVA’s 2017 membership renewal campaign: Slow Rolling Innovation to Protect Pay-TV Providers from Competition! (They’re still workshopping that slogan.) Want to take advantage of your new 4K television? If ATVA can stall approval of Next Gen TV, you won’t have a free over-the-air option for ultra-high-definition programming. ATVA’s members will be the only game in town. That ought to keep the checks rolling in!

    So ATVA is earnestly advising the FCC that it should take special care to understand whether Next Gen TV “would allow broadcasters to collect the benefits of the transition…while externalizing much of the associated costs to others.”[1] They’ve even italicized benefits and costs to make sure the FCC notices.

    There’s just one problem with ATVA’s 2017 fundraising drive: it’s transparently, embarrassingly anti-consumer. Stunning pictures, more immersive audio, enhanced emergency alerts and more diverse programming? Those are all benefits for consumers. Broadcasters are not seeking to externalize costs; they are expressly seeking permission from the FCC to make significant investments in their facilities to improve the service they offer – without government subsidies, without additional spectrum and without leaving viewers behind. It’s one thing to paint yourself into a rhetorical corner, it’s quite another to actually highlight the words paint and corner to make sure no one misses them.

    We’re confident the FCC, once again, won’t be fooled. ATVA will just have to go back to the drawing board.

    [1] Letter from Mike Chappell, Executive Director, ATVA to Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary, FCC, GN Docket No. 16-142 (Dec. 2, 2016) (emphasis in original).

     
  • NAB 3:27 pm on November 14, 2016 Permalink  

    Local Broadcasters in the Eye of the Storm 

    Alpha Media Vice President and Market Manager Gigi South shares how their stations mobilized before, during and after Hurricane Matthew to keep their communities in Savannah, Ga., and Hilton Head, S.C., safe and informed, working around-the-clock to provide a lifeline to those affected by the storm.

    The Savannah – Hilton Head area has seen lots of hurricanes in recent years with little to no damage. We were hearing that Hurricane Matthew could be different. Residents and broadcasters were skeptical. Then, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered a mandatory evacuation of the South Carolina coast and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal followed soon after, getting everyone’s attention.

    We met with our programming staff to bring them up to speed on the track of this massive hurricane and solidify our plan. Most of the staff evacuated, leaving a small crew of broadcasters who would ride out the storm to make sure that the residents left behind had vital lifesaving information. We prepped the studio – it was boarded up like every storefront – and made contingency plans in case of tornados, straight-line winds or flooding. We bought an extra generator and a lot of junk food. We made arrangements for our own homes and families and met back at the studio Friday morning, October 7.

    Since our stations in Palm Beach were in Matthew’s path first, Alpha’s market manager there, Elizabeth Hamma, and I shared texts through the night with our Executive Vice President Bill McElveen. Once we were in the clear, we were able to pass along information to our stations in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, who did the same for our Greeneville/New Bern stations.

    At 6 a.m. Friday, October 7, we started a seven signal simulcast of live storm information with limited music and commercial breaks. Our coverage was led by Monty Jett, a lifetime Lowcountry resident with 54 years on the air. Monty knows every nook and cranny in our area and was able to speak to callers about specific areas, tides and even give BBQ restaurants as landmarks. Rob Walker (operations manager and program director), Gabe Reynolds (program director and digital content director), Mark the Shark Ediss (WXYY), Jake Thomson (WUBB), myself and our engineer, C.B. Gaffney, hunkered down in the studio through the weekend and into the following week. We cold brewed coffee and lived on junk food and Lean Cuisines thanks to a small extra generator. Alpha provided hotel rooms for the crew, but there were curfews and the team wanted to stay together so most took turns shift sleeping at the station on air mattresses.

    Since both states had ordered mandatory evacuations, they warned that there would be no emergency services available to residents who chose to stay behind. We heard from those residents all night and all weekend long. There was no power for several days in Savannah, Bluffton, Hilton Head, Beaufort or Brunswick. People get lonely, panicked and desperate when they are alone in the dark. We have many stories of how we connected listeners directly with other listeners for the help they needed. For instance, our on-air team helped to get oxygen delivered to a listener who was moments away from an empty tank.

    This was my second natural disaster, following the devastating Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011. Both times, I’ve noticed that afterwards, there is a new appreciation for local broadcasters. With Hurricane Matthew, there was no power in most of the area until the following Tuesday, some areas waited even longer. With no power, there is often no internet, no cell service and sometimes no TV. In natural disasters, radio becomes a lifeline. We don’t actually administer lifesaving help, we connect listeners to it. We heard lots of stories from listeners thanking us for being the only voices they heard for an entire weekend. Some had battery-operated or weather radios, others went to their cars to listen once the storm had passed, but they were still in the dark.  The use of new technology was fascinating. Mayor Lisa Sulka of Bluffton held frequent press conferences to speak to her town via Facebook Live. She would let us know she was about to broadcast. We plugged a phone into the board and carried the conferences live. Thankfully, we had a generator to charge our phones!

    Having FM radio receivers in cell phones in these situations can be so helpful, providing another way for people to tune in to our stations and be informed in a crisis. Practically all smartphones have the hardware capable of receiving free FM radio signals, but not all phones have this feature activated. Unlocking the FM chip in cell phones gives us another way to reach our listeners without draining precious battery life with traditional streaming.  We also recommend that anyone facing a possible natural disaster have back up cell phone batteries. Several of us had these packs and they were all used several times to power up.

    Our simulcast ended the following Friday, October 14. We were well into recovery mode, working with FEMA and local authorities in our various communities. We are back to the music with necessary Matthew updates. Our area still has a lot of work ahead to recover from Matthew and Alpha will continue to be there. We are grateful that lives were not lost here. Other areas were not as fortunate.

    That’s the power of local broadcasting. We are neighbors helping neighbors. Friends and family connected to the community. This is a vital role we are honored to fill in the Savannah, Ga., and Hilton Head, S.C., communities.

     
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