Friday, January 30, 2009

The End of TV

Two days after being voted down by the U.S. House of Representatives a bill to delay the transition to digital television came back to life in the U.S. Senate. The Senate today passed a bill delaying the DTV switch until June. It now goes back to the House, where it may not come up for a vote until late next week.

Without an extension, in just weeks television as we know it will undergo a dramatic transition as broadcasters turn off their analog signals for good and American TV goes fully digital.

Even assuming everyone does get a converter box in time for the changeover, it’s still not clear exactly what’s going to happen when analog finally goes dark.

Last February market research firm Centris concluded that due to distance limitations of digital signals and interference known as “multipath,” a significant number of households will lose channels with the transition. Those with the highest risk of seeing a black screen are households that rely on indoor antennas – such as the combination UHF/VHF “rabbit ears” many of us grew up with.

Government estimates put the number of American households that have at least one TV receiving over-the-air analog signals at roughly 35 million, and Centris estimates as much as 70 percent of them rely on indoor antennas.

The shortcomings of DTV reception via indoor antennas have been common knowledge since at least 1999, when Sinclair Broadcasting Group challenged the dominant DTV standard – known as “8-VSB” -- calling it inadequate for the delivery of reliable over-the-air service to simple indoor antennas. The FCC overruled Sinclair’s objections, and the company says advances in DTV receiver chipsets have since helped mitigate the problem. But some engineers say the problems are far from fixed.

“For the people with rabbit-ear antennas, I would say at least 50 percent won’t get [all] the channels they were getting,” said Dr. Oded Bendov an engineer, industry consultant and president of TV Transmission Antenna Group, Inc. Bendov, who has conducted several studies on DTV reception and was hired to replace the antennas on the Empire State Building, says he could “write a book on all the ways the FCC botched the DTV project.”

“Between over-prediction of how far the DTV service will extend and underestimating the real-world reception problems of DTV, the FCC achieved on paper the replication of the analog TV service that TV broadcasters had insisted upon. But that accomplishment is only on paper,” he said.

Here’s why: Those of us accustomed to watching analog television know that not every channel comes in crystal clear; that’s been an acceptable tradeoff for people who don’t watch enough television to justify paying for cable or satellite or those who are simply content with the programming choices available on network TV. But while analog television offers grades of clarity – ranging from crystal clear to a screen full of snow and everything in between, digital, by its very nature, is an ‘all or nothing’ technology: you either get a channel perfectly or you don’t get it at all.

That means some channels that were perfectly watchable via analog will disappear completely with digital.

Besides converter box manufacturers and broadcasters, it’s hard to see who benefits (except maybe cable companies, which expect to see a surge in new subscribers who are unable to receive digital signals.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

111th Gets Busy

The 111th Congress convened on Monday; and while the passage of an economic stimulus package may be the most pressing order of business, that didn't stop members in both houses from introducing nearly 500 other bills and resolutions this week on issues ranging from immigration reform and national security to granting the media the right to witness the return of soldiers’ remains from abroad.

Resolutions cover tidbits like denouncing the practice of female genital mutilation – sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas); and expressing support for the designation of January 28, 2009 as ‘National Data Privacy Day’ – sponsored by Rep. David Price (D-NC).

The first ten bills in each branch of the legislature are traditionally reserved for the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader, respectively; typically, these bills cover legislation of special importance to the Majority.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to designate her bills, but in the Senate, most of Harry Reid’s proposed legislation deals with key Democratic issues including health care reform, renewable energy and protecting the middle class (or what’s left of it).

The American Prospect Online published this primer on the “First Ten.”

Notable among the first ten Senate bills is S.8 -- Returning Government to the American People Act, which deals with reversing some President Bush’s ‘midnight regulations.’ These rules, which the President has been busy pushing through in his final months in office, mainly involve easing various labor and environmental restrictions.

In the Senate, former presidential candidate John McCain (R-AZ) has been busy this week, having sponsored a total of eight bills as of Thursday. Many deal with issues in his home state of Arizona.

Here’s what’s been on McCain’s mind since losing the election:

S.36 : A bill to repeal the perimeter rule for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and for other purposes;

S.37 : A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to permanently extend the research credit;

S.38 : A bill to establish a United States Boxing Commission to administer the Act, and for other purposes;

S.39 : A bill to repeal section 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, commonly known as the “Bennett Freeze” (this refers to an archaic rule that prohibits Navajo from settling on disputed land adjacent to a Hopi area);

S.40 : A bill to designate Fossil Creek, a tributary of the Verde River in the State of Arizona, as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System;

S.151 : A bill to protect Indian arts and crafts through the improvement of applicable criminal proceedings, and for other purposes;

S.152 : A bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to jointly conduct a study of certain land adjacent to the Walnut Canyon National Monument in the State of Arizona;

S.153 : A bill to amend the National Trails System Act to designate the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

Other noteworthy legislation includes Rep. John Conyers’ (D-MI) H.R.104, which would establish a national commission to investigate Bush Administration war policies and their effect on civil liberties; Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) S.147, which would close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and prohibit certain interrogation techniques; Sen, Herb Kohl’s (D-WI) S. 149, which would move Election Day from the first Tuesday in November to the first full weekend in November; and Rep. Jose Serrano’s (D-NY) H.R.188, which would lift the trade embargo on Cuba.

A searchable database of all bills and resolutions in the 111th Congress is available here.