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Archive for Digital Television
An overscan fix for the Sharp LC-42SB45U television set when connected to a computer with a Linux operating system (Ubuntu, etc.)
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I have a modest proposal for how to solve our broadband access and bandwidth problems. Okay, maybe not all of them, but at least two:
- The current inability of people in rural areas (with dialup access only) to download larger files in an efficient manner.
- The virtually non-existent problem of “bandwidth hogs” that consume so much data that they cause congestion in the networks (in most cases this is pure nonsense, but since Big Cable and Big Telco want so badly to sell you this lie, let’s follow them into their fantasy world for the moment and respond with a solution that does NOT involve usage caps or metered service).
Okay, let’s suppose you have a fictitious company, we’ll call it Bingleulu (because no real company could call themselves that!). And lets suppose this company could do two things:
- Acquire the equivalent of (initially) 12 television channels worth of bandwidth on repurposed TV frequencies nationwide, and
- Acquire the equivalent of (initially) 12 television channels worth of bandwidth on a communications satellite (either C or Ku band, but preferably Ku) that is visible from the entire United States (or at least most of it).
Now, this dozen-channel bandwidth would be used as one huge data pipe – let’s call it the Big Fat Pipe, or BFP for short. If your dial-up modem is like a slow faucet drip, and your cable modem connection is like a low-flow shower head, the BFP would be like an open fire hydrant. Data would be sent up to the satellite in one fat stream, then down to either individual users (mostly those in rural areas not near a terrestrial transmitter) and to the ground station towers that would retransmit the signal over the former TV airwaves. Why the dual coverage? Well, satellite is great for use in rural areas and other places where people might have issues receiving the terrestrial signals reliably, whereas the terrestrial stations would require less expensive receiving equipment and would be more suitable for mobile use, and use in locations where satellites aren’t visible due to heavy tree cover. Plus it gives you a bit of redundancy, since in time the terrestrial stations could be linked by a backup fiber optic link.
So now you have this giant firehose of data, as it were. Now, let’s say you decide to watch a video. You jump on your web browser, on your existing dial-up or broadband connection, or even your mobile phone (which would have a built in data receiver) and go to the Bingleulu site, and select your video. On the pages there’s also a small setting dropdown that says something to the effect of “Number of seconds I’m willing to wait”, and it defaults to 60 seconds, but you can set it to something shorter or longer – even much longer if you’re selecting a large file that you won’t be able to watch until later.
Now, here’s the magic part. The Bingleulu site looks at whether it has space available in the flood of data it’s sending out, and if possible it sends your file within your specified maximum wait time as part of the the big flood. It uses a smart algorithm to figure this out, taking into account things like your connection speed and type (dial-up and mobile users might get some preference), whether you’re on an ISP that caps your data usage, and a bunch of other things. One thing it takes into account is how likely it is that someone else will request the same file within your specified wait time, because one of the things this system attempts to do is send popular files (especially LARGE popular files) to many users at once.
So when you make the request, the video or file or whatever might come back to you the usual way, over your internet connection, and the smaller the file the more likely it is that it will come that way. But if there is space available – and assuming you give it long enough, there will be – the file will come back to you via the satellite or terrestrial transmitter system. In that case, your browser will be sent an ID tag of some kind (via your regular connection) and it will then know that it is to look for the data containing that tag on the satellite/terrestrial over-the-air system. If it misses any packets, it can request retransmission of just those packets, so that the entire file doesn’t have to be resent (and again, these could be sent either the normal way, or over the BFP of data sent through the airwaves, depending on which makes the most sense).
During times of congestion in the BFP, priority would be given to large files, files that have been requested by many people (you would try to fill as many requests as possible using the same data stream), and live streams (such as live audio or video programming, especially streams that many people are wanting to access simultaneously).
What do we accomplish with this scheme? Well, for one thing, we get a lot of the largest files off your ISP (so they have a lot more “breathing room” and don’t have to meter usage – and yes, I KNOW there’s no reason they have to do that anyway, but if they’re going to lie about it, this is one way to pull the rug out from under their lies). And if you have a dial-up connection or mobile broadband connection, where either slow speeds or congestion might be actual issues, this scheme at least gets you access to the large files you may want at something other than a snail’s pace (though at some times of day you may have to wait a while for the download to start, but once it does start you’ll have it quickly!).
Now, who would pay for this bandwidth? Well, in some countries they might choose to operate it as a public utility, but that likely wouldn’t fly given the political climate in the U.S. (by which I mean, those lousy obstructionist Republicans and “blue dog” Democrats that stand in the way of anything that might benefit the common person unless it gives one or more huge corporations a leg up… sorry, got carried away there). So that’s why I invented out mythical company, Bingleulu. Just saying, there are several companies that face the problem of potentially having a real difficult time getting their content out to you if the big ISP’s start metering service, and those companies (any one of them individually, or a consortium of two or more) could come up with a solution.
What would you need to make this work? Well, for starters, an extension to the HTML protocol, or some mechanism so that when you make a request, you will always get some response via your primary Internet connection, but if you have access to the BFP, the response might be, in effect, “get it off the BFP by looking for packets tagged with this ID”, followed by an ID string. In a well-designed system it would even send an estimated time to the start of the download, if there will be a significant delay.
Also, you’d need a receiver for the BFP – initially this could take the form of a card that would go into your computer, or (more likely) a USB-connected receiver, or possibly even a receiver that sits on your local network and can service several computers in your home or small business (something akin to a HDHomeRun® type device). The receiver should have connections for both a satellite dish LNB, and a regular TV antenna. Note that initially, a company that wants to do this could implement half of this system (the satellite half) just by designing the system and then leasing bandwidth on a Ku-band satellite (Ku usually requires dishes of about two feet up to one meter in diameter for reliable reception, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of unused space on Ku-band satellites these days), then wait and see if the FCC will allow them to obtain the bandwidth in the broadcast spectrum.
Some additional things to consider:
First, it’s very likely that sooner or later there would be more than one BFP. This might be because “spot beams” would be used to increase capacity, or simply because you’d need additional satellites to cover other parts of the world (such as Hawaii and Guam) if this catches on. So when the system is designed, it need to have some way to know which satellite feed or terrestrial transmitter the receiver is receiving, and if there is more than one BFP, to return the requested data on the correct one.
Second, there may be special considerations for certain types of broadband connections. For example, what if the requester is using another type of satellite provider (WildBlue, HughesNet, etc.)? Do you try to avoid sending the request back that way (because it might trip a usage cap) or do you treat it like a normal broadband connection (where smaller, less popular, and “immediate gratification wanted” files would sometimes be sent back through the normal connection)?
Third, once we get into the area of live streams, those can eat bandwidth quickly (particularly high-definition quality video streams!). Unless you have a LOT of bandwidth, you can only carry a certain number of those in real time, so how do you decide which ones? Do you compress them (and sacrifice quality) during times of congestion? One thing to note – unlike what happens with your cable company, if no one has requested a particular stream, it wouldn’t be sent. EVERYTHING sent on the BFP is sent in response to an actual request by at least one user.
Fourth, let’s suppose several broadcasters jump on this as a delivery mechanism and now, suddenly, you don’t have enough capacity, but then your satellite provider and/or the FCC manages to find you more bandwidth – but now nobody has receivers that will tune the new bandwidth. Should receivers be designed from the outset to be tunable over a much larger range than what’s actually used at the start of the service? Seems to me that any service like this should be designed from the get-go with the idea that more bandwidth will be needed, and possibly available, at some point in the future, and that receivers in particular should be electronically reconfigureable to tune any additional bandwidth that may become available. I might even suggest that it should be possible to connect a DiSEQc switch to the receiver, so that if the time ever comes that multiple satellites are used, it will be possible to switch between the satellites.
I’m just tossing this idea out there, to see if anyone else thinks it might be a good idea. With the economy as it is, there are several of the older-style Ku-band communications satellites that have a fair chunk of unused spectrum space available, and I can tell you from personal experience that in most places a two-foot dish will get you a very adequate signal, and a three-foot dish will get you excellent reception (at least for Free-To-Air television reception). As long as people don’t let idiot installers mount the dish on their roof (making it nearly impossible to use a broom to clean off the snow in the winter), a delivery system that uses now-vacant bandwidth on Ku-band satellites should be quite workable, and even affordable.
If you stop and think about it, the most efficient use of spectrum space would be if the entire broadcast radio and TV spectrum, and all of the satellites, transmitted nothing but the BFP data stream. Television networks and local stations would simply be data streams. The BFP could even be smart enough to send you the network TV stream when you are watching a network program (and that network stream would only need to be transmitted once, as a single data stream) but when it comes time to show local commercials, there would be other streams for those, and the beauty is that everything could be configured to use a minimum of bandwidth (hopefully NOT by reducing the quality of the received signal, though) – for example, if Burger King buys the first local commercial spot in “Heroes” in 20 local TV markets, that commercial would only need to be streamed once and your receiver would be smart enough to know that you are supposed to get that commercial, even though people in other markets would be getting different streams. The advantage to viewers would be that you’d be getting the original data stream in full high definition direct from the network – no sub-optimal signals because your local station has crappy transmitting equipment, or is trying to cram three or four stations into one digital television signal.
Who would hate this idea? The National Association of Buggywhip… er, I mean, the National Association of Broadcasters, who would be just fine with keeping the status quo (and in protecting local stations that in many cases don’t deserve it, particularly when they superimpose their damn useless weather radar graphics and similar useless crap over a network show!). But if one of the big players really turned their most talented and creative people loose with this idea, it could totally change the way we distribute data in this country – and, as I say, pull the rug out from under those greedy bastards that want to start metering your data usage and charging you extra if they think you’re a “bandwidth hog” (here’s a great funny rebuttal to those morons, but don’t click there if you’re uptight about profanity).
Hard to believe we’re coming up on the turn of another decade. Although the technological revolution was well under way by the time I was born, it’s interesting to think about how different things are today from how they were way back then. Here’s how I recall the decades (note I wasn’t born yet in 1950, but close enough that I can extrapolate):
1950: Black and White television was just starting to appear in the homes of those who were not extremely affluent (although a TV was still a major investment). Sets were large and picture tubes were small (and round, though sometimes the top and bottom parts were masked). Nationwide television broadcasting was still a year away – coaxial cable connections only extended between New York and the eastern half of the country until 1951, when it was extended to the west coast. Many network stations in smaller markets actually got their signal by putting up a tall antenna and picking it up from the nearest network owned and operated station, or another nearby affiliate (a practice that continued in some places until communications satellites came into being). Local telephone calls in many areas had to placed through an operator, although some cities had rotary dial service. Long distance calls were very expensive and usually had to be placed through multiple operators and toll switchboards, although operator dialing of distant numbers was starting to come into use. Many people only called relatives at Christmas or on a birthday, and were careful to keep the call length under three minutes (the initial charge was for the first three minutes). Telegrams were just starting to decline in popularity, as long distance had become a bit less expensive after the war ended. As for computers, a basic pocket calculator today probably has more computing power than the largest computers of the 1950′s.
1960: Color TV’s were available, but they were big and heavy and definitely a luxury item. TV picture tubes had started to take on a more rectangular shape, but still had rounded corners. The big story of the previous decade had been the development of transistors, and the transistor radio was just starting to be the hot item for teenagers to have. “Direct Distance Dialing” (customer dialing of long distance calls within the U.S. and Canada) was being implemented, although in 1960 there were still many manual exchanges in rural areas, so not all points were dialable, and long distance calls were still expensive enough that you thought twice before making a long distance call, even though the phone companies did everything they could to encourage long distance usage. The first experimental satellite television signals were still two years away. Telegrams were for funerals and official business – people had found that it was cheaper to make a three-minute call than send an old-fashioned telegram. And even with transistor technology, computers still filled large rooms and weren’t as powerful (and almost certainly didn’t have as much memory or storage) as even a low-end notebook computer of today.
1970: All but the poorest people (and the cheapskates) had color TV (or would within a couple of years), and some TV’s had real remote controls (in many homes, the remote control was a parent hollering for one of the kids to come change the channel!). TV’s has shrunk to a reasonable size, too – the large TV-as-a-piece-of-furniture was on its way out, and a smaller model (perhaps on a rollable stand) was in. With the new mostly-transistorized sets, the TV repairman was no longer almost a part of the family, since transistors didn’t fail the way vacuum tubes did. Commercial satellite television was now a reality, being used to relay news and programs from overseas, and to deliver network programming direct to TV stations, no matter how remote the location. The receiving equipment was still very expensive, though. The hot new technology was the Integrated Circuit. Electronic switching had come into widespread use in telephone exchanges, and the days of the operator (for completing local calls) was gone. For most folks, regular telegrams were something only seen in old movies. There were mobile telephones (and marine telephones on boats) but they were very expensive and required bulky equipment, and in most areas only a handful of channels were available (and they were plain old analog radio channels, so anyone with a radio that tuned those bands could listen in!). Touch-Tone telephones were starting to become popular, replacing the old rotary dial phones. Computers had actually started to appear in many medium-sized and smaller businesses – the most compact models were about the size of a home furnace and used LARGE hard drive platters (16″ was a common size) with far less storage capacity than you’d get on a memory stick today. And electronic calculators were starting to be widely used in businesses, and even some homes.
1980: Your TV had integrated circuits and a remote control, and was priced so that even poor people could afford one. Only small specialty sets were black and white. Cable TV was becoming available in many parts of the country, though the selection of channels was fairly pitiful by today’s standards (it had actually been around for many years, but it was just starting to become a somewhat ubiquitous utility in populated areas). News and programming from around the globe was commonplace, delivered via commercial satellite, and some people were installing large C-band dishes on their property to receive programming direct from the satellites. The Sony Walkman was the hot new thing, and it would forever change the way people listened to music. And wonder of wonders, the personal computer had arrived – if you lived in a major city, you could actually go to a “computer store” (or a Radio Shack) and buy your very own home computer. You’d store your data on cassette tapes, or perhaps a floppy disk if you could shell out few hundred dollars for a floppy disk drive (hard drives were in the four to five figure price range – a home computer might have one with 5 MB capacity). Oh, and your family and friends would look at you like you’d grown a third eyeball when you told them you had a computer at home! And there was this thing called the Internet that was being used to move data between large computers (mostly those owned by universities and the government) worldwide, but most home computer users had never heard of it – what was newly available in 1980 was commercial services such as Compuserve and Prodigy, if you had a 300 baud modem and were willing to pay by the minute for a service that displayed text at a rate much slower than most people’s reading speed.
1990: What a difference a decade makes. By 1990 most of the original home computer manufacturers were long gone – the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981, and Microsoft’s MS-DOS had radically altered the personal computer landscape. Apple and a few others were still in business, but most of the early PC makers either got out of the business or started selling PC “clones.” The hot new thing in 1990 was Windows 3.0, which many would argue was the first version of Windows that remotely resembled Windows as we know it today. A typical computer hard drive would have capacity measured in megabytes, in most cases under 100 MB. And while computer users were starting to become vaguely aware that there was something called the Internet out there, many users were still using 2400 to 9600 bps modems and connecting to local BBS systems, many of which were interconnected through an ad-hoc network called Fidonet, run in some areas by tin-pot dictators who were more interested in enforcing rules than applying common sense (causing some sysops to incur hundreds of dollars in unnecessary phone charges, because they weren’t allowed to pick up feeds from the least expensive source). I still have the deepest of contempt for one particular Fidonet “coordinator” who I’d swear was working for the phone company (since he was a direct cause of many sysops incurring excessive or unnecessary toll charges), except for the fact that he even caused problems FOR a phone company’s sponsored Fidonet BBS in one city. Many Fidonet users and sysops were looking for an alternative to Fidonet by 1990, and I think that in large part jump-started the interest in that “other” network, the Internet. In other news, Direct-To-Home satellite service was just getting started in Europe; it would be another year before Primestar would be available in the United States. Cell phones were starting to be used by businesses, but the per-minute rates were prohibitive for most users. At the same time, rates for calls to many overseas locations had started to fall to somewhat affordable levels. The big news in telephones had been the Bell System breakup of 1984, and by 1990 many customers had started buying their own telephones instead of paying the phone company approximately $5 a month for a rented phone (even more if you wanted a color other than black, or a long cord). Also, by 1990, competitive long distance companies such as MCI and Sprint were capturing a large percentage of long distance traffic that had formerly gone through AT&T.
2000: The home computer user was no longer considered a bit strange, thanks to the appearance of the commercial Internet (and the World Wide Web) starting in the early- to mid-90′s. Suddenly the Internet was usable by the common person, and it was far less expensive that Compuserve or AOL, which were but a shadow of their former selves. Fidonet only held onto a few hardcore sysops (though it has tenaciously refused to die completely). Windows 2000 was the new OS from Microsoft (some people are still using it!). Writable CD’s were replacing the floppy drive, and hard drive storage was measured in the hundreds of megabytes; and those large drives were needed to store all those MP3 files that people were downloading courtesy of Napster and similar filesharing programs that had become the bane of the recording industry (since most users were still on dial-up Internet, using 56K modems, it wasn’t really feasible to download large video files yet). Speaking of the MP3, personal MP3 players were only another year away – goodbye to our old friend, the Walkman. Dish Network and DirecTV were competing for customers, finally giving TV viewers an alternative to cable television, which was increasingly becoming overpriced – the channel selection was increasing, but people were starting to find the offerings underwhelming, thus the lament of “500 channels and nothing’s on.” The long, slow changeover to HDTV had begun, though few stations broadcasted HDTV signals, and HDTV sets were very expensive (and about as easy to move around as a grand piano!). Cell phones were becoming a somewhat common item, at least among the well-heeled, and they were getting much smaller as well – gone were the “bag phones” that had been used in cars. And traditional telephone calling was getting much cheaper, due to the increased competition between both long distance companies and the new competitive local phone companies. Unfortunately, the trend toward big mergers had begun; the “baby Bells” started putting themselves back together.
Going into 2010: The 2000′s brought us flat screen monitors and TV’s in sizes that we’d only imagined (just in time to help us baby boomers with failing eyesight). HDTV sets are finally becoming somewhat affordable, though they have a way to go (I think HDTV is about where color sets were in 1970). Cable and satellite TV services have gotten more expensive but not necessarily better, but today we have an alternative – sites like Hulu and YouTube. However, another thing that happened during the 2000′s was that most of us started getting our Internet service from the cable company, in order to get away from slow dialup speeds, but in the process we have nearly eliminated the very competitive dialup ISP market and replaced it with a monopoly or duopoly provider situation when it comes to broadband. And both the cable companies, and the phone companies that are starting to see the potential in offering their own cable TV equivalent, would like very much to kill the streaming video sites, by going to metered billing so that customers are afraid to use the bandwidth they’re paying for (bear in mind that NO provider wants to offer TRUE metered billing – they still want to charge you a monthly rate like they’ve been doing all along, but then start piling on charges if they think you’ve consumed too many bytes of data in a month). Computers have gotten much faster, and hard drives capacities are starting to be measured in terabytes. The floppy disk has gone the way of the dodo, and the CD probably would have if so many of us didn’t have drawers full of “free-after-rebate” blank CD’s that we bought to back up our hard drives, only to discover that it was more efficient to just buy another hard drive for backup purposes. The music and movie industries moved to impose Draconian punishments on those who share copyrighted files, arguably alienating many of their best customers in the process. Microsoft really dropped the ball with Windows Vista, giving Apple a leg up in the consumer computer market, and it remains to be seen if Windows 7 will reverse the trend. In telephony, the big story was VoIP, which drove down the cost of both domestic and international calling, to the point that traditional phone companies started doing something they probably never thought they’d have to do – offer affordable, flat-rate nationwide calling plans. And even with that, people are abandoning the traditional landline in droves. As the telegram was in 1950, is perhaps what the traditional landline phone call is today.
2020: Okay, my crystal ball (or third eye or whatever you want to call it) has never worked right – I keep hoping for that moment of enlightenment, but so far, no such luck. So I’ll probably miss on some of these, but here’s what I suspect may happen by 2020. With regard to TV’s: Bigger, thinner, cheaper, and the hot new thing may be 3D television. With regard to telephones, the dangers of cell phone radiation will become more apparent as more heavy cell users start getting brain tumors, so the cell phone will be redesigned so there is no high power transmitter close to any body part (unless it’s shielded in some way). This means that portable phones may only radiate to one side (away from the head/body), posing interesting challenges for cell site designers. Also, I suspect wideband voice will take hold – it is ridiculous to limit voice channels to sub-AM radio quality, a relic of available long distance circuit bandwidth from nearly a century ago. Traditional copper-pair based residential landline service will be all but dead, except for older people and some businesses. By 2020, phone companies will simply stop installing new copper (except perhaps for the last few- to few-hundred feet) and go to fiber almost exclusively. There will be a mad scramble by all traditional phone companies to try and sell off as much of their aging copper plant as possible. After that, I think competition may arise in the broadband market – as existing phone/broadband companies find that they have saturated their existing service areas, they will look to grow by (finally) moving into the territories of other companies and overbuilding (this assumes that the cost of running fiber will get cheaper). One wild card is that the government could still require divestiture of outside plant, spinning off the wires, cables and fiber to an entity that would not be allowed to be in the phone or broadband business, but would only be allowed to wholesale connectivity between homes and service providers. And I’m not sure what the hot new technology for the kids will be, but I’m betting it will involve some form of thought control (remember the line from Back to the Future II: “You mean you have to use your hands? That’s like a baby’s toy!” No, I don’t think we’ll have antigravity hoverboards, not because the technology won’t exist, but because it won’t have filtered down to commercial use yet). As for computers: Faster, MUCH smaller desktop models (think Mac Mini, but thinner), quieter, more use of solid state storage to replace hard drives, and built in HDMI ports will become commonplace. I also expect you’ll see HDTV sets with a fully functional computer either built in, or offered as an accessory. There will be a replacement for the computer mouse – it may involve thought control, or it may take the form of a camera smart enough to recognize gestures and hand movements in the air (privacy advocates and conspiracy theorists probably won’t like the camera idea much), but the mouse will be too inconvenient when you are sitting in your easy chair using a wireless keyboard and your HDTV screen!
Then, as I’ve mentioned before, there is the “X factor” — the technology that hardly anyone sees coming even a decade before. We’ve had a lot of those in the past few decades: television in the home, transistors, the space program, integrated circuits, lasers, fiber optics, cell phones, the commercial Internet, the World Wide Web, commercial broadband to the home, VoIP. Some of these may have been anticipated in science fiction, but still they were often things that few had seriously dreamed of even ten years before. Let’s suppose for a moment that someone figures out the secret of anti-gravity and makes it widely available — can you imagine the changes that would bring to society? Or, what about cold fusion (which some scientists think is still workable)? Okay, now suppose that you had some way to put a platform in the sky, in the upper atmosphere above the level of clouds and storms, and you have figured out how to oppose gravity (and have the nearly limitless energy supply to do it). Suddenly you have the perfect platform to spot-beam wireless Internet to entire counties or more, plus with clear line of site such platforms could network to each other. Unfortunately, far too often the governments of the industrialized countries choose to protect existing corporations rather than advance new technologies. We don’t even utilize the technologies we have available (case in point: Why do we not have computer controlled, “drive by wire” automobiles and trucks? You’d likely have to embed control wires in or near road surfaces, but once fully implemented, such a system could save both fuel and lives, particularly in the case of avoiding accidents caused by sleepy/distracted/aggressive/inexperienced/elderly/fleeing criminal drivers).
Well, I hope you have enjoyed this romp through the technological past and possible future. Did I miss anything important? Do you know of some up and coming technology that has the potential to change life as we know it? Feel free to leave a comment!
For those in the television backwaters — the places that have lost one or more network TV signals due to the switch to digital television — there are alternatives, in a little known form of satellite television.
It’s kind of like one of those “good news, bad news” jokes.
The good news is that there are dozens, even hundreds of television signals available absolutely free, and the reception is almost always crystal clear. As long as you have a clear view of the southern sky, and aren’t prohibited from setting up a satellite dish (if someone — landlord, homeowner’s association, zoning authority, anyone — tries to tell you that you are prohibited from having a dish, that prohibition may be illegal under federal law), all that television is yours for the viewing.
The bad news: There are many “catches”.
First of all, don’t expect to get the equivalent of cable or commercial satellite TV. While there are a handful of cable channels that will occasionally become available for short periods of time, most of the stations are the sort you’d find on low-power local television stations, or on the secondary channels of local HDTV stations (those channel-02 and channel-03 channels, for example). Many are in Spanish, or some other foreign language. If you are really lucky, you might pick up a major network feed, but if you do, you probably don’t want to tell anybody, because if too many people find out, that channel will almost certainly disappear.
And that’s the biggest rub with this service — unless you’re really good at scrounging used equipment and figuring out what needs to be done to make it usable with the free signals, you’ll spend at a minimum two to three hundred dollars to get a working system going, and even more if you want to receive signals from multiple satellites or if you want to receive true HDTV signals (note that almost all satellite television is digital these days, but not all of it is in high definition). And once you have spent all that money, the stations you enjoy today could be gone tomorrow.
There is an apocryphal story that went around in the satellite forums — a cable television company in Alaska fed several of the Anchorage TV stations to one of the satellites in the clear, presumably for the purpose of feeding this signals to remote cable systems in cities and villages around Alaska. Those “in the know” enjoyed these stations, particularly viewers in the Eastern half of the U.S., because they provided the west coast feeds of all the major networks. That much I know to be fact, everything else is just rumor that was floating around the satellite forums a while back.
One day, as the story goes, some bigmouth in a bar was bragging about how he could watch the Saturday baseball feeds from both coasts. What he did not know was that the president of the cable company was there, and was unaware (to that point) that his technicians were uplinking the signals in a totally unencrypted format that anyone with the right kind of receiver and satellite dish could view, no subscription required. He overheard the bigmouth, and ordered his technicians to scramble the signal, but that wasn’t the end of it.
As the story goes, FOX got wind of the incident and realized that by feeding games to the East and West coasts separately, some folks could watch TWO MLB games on Saturday, just by changing feeds. I’m not sure if this violated some contractual agreement with Major League Baseball or what, but all anyone knows for sure is that in subsequent seasons, they started doing all Saturday baseball feeds starting at 4:00 PM Eastern nationwide – no more 1:00 PM games for the Eastern and Central time zones.
So the lesson is, you could spend considerable $$$ on receiving equipment, but that doesn’t guarantee there will be anything you want to watch. Here today, maybe gone tomorrow, and loose lips sink channels.
What about the legality? Well, I am not a lawyer, and I’m definitely not going to give you legal advice. But to the best of my knowledge, no one in the United States has ever been prosecuted for watching unscrambled signals. The thinking in the U.S. seems to be that anyone with a signal they want to protect has some duty to mitigate losses, by employing some form of encryption. I’m sure that certain content owners would disagree about the legality of watching just any unscrambled signal you happen to find, but I don’t think any court would be too sympathetic — and besides, are you really going to run around telling everyone just what you’re watching? Assuming you’re not drunk and shooting your mouth off in a bar somewhere, that is.
However, in the past there have been unscrupulous people who have sold “hacked” receivers that pick up signals they are not supposed to be able to receive without paying. If you buy one of those, you are an idiot. Why? Because those receivers will not continue to pick up those signals indefinitely, because companies change their encryption methods from time to time. So, after a while you’ll have to go back to the guy you bought it from and see if he can unlock it again, assuming you can even find him. But chances are, the FBI or some other government agency will find him first, and will obtain his customer list, and next thing you know they’ll be at your door and you’ll be charged with theft of service, a federal felony. There is a HUGE difference between watching the unencrypted signals that are freely available, and using “hacked” equipment to try and receive signals that are encrypted. Try the latter and you may be doing most of your TV viewing on a communal TV in an inmate recreation area.
Most people who watch the free, unencrypted satellite TV realize that the hackers are a menace to the hobby. The last thing they need to to be labeled “pirates” and lumped in with those who just want to steal signals. So on many of the online satellite forums, any request for information on hacking a receiver will likely get you banned for life. That’s no small thing, considering that there are very few good sources of online information on the subject.
One of the best sources of information is the Free To Air (FTA) Discussion forum at SatelliteGuys.US. And make no mistake, if you really want to explore this, there’s a learning curve. For one thing, satellite dishes have to be aimed fairly precisely – getting just “sort of close” DOES NOT count. For another thing, satellite signals don’t pass through solid objects of any kind, particularly trees with leaves or needles on them. Even a small branch with four or five leaves can cast a shadow across a dish that will reduce the received signal to a point where it’s unusable. And, for the most part, you can’t just take an old Dish Network or DirecTV dish and reuse it (although if you have an old PrimeStar dish, that will work, and the larger sizes of those dishes are much valued by those who view these free signals). You will need to learn about setting up a dish (best to use a pole in the ground set in concrete — with a satellite dish, additionl height does not get you more signal, but makes it a lot harder to clear accumulated snow off the dish in the winter, something else that can interfere with the signal), grounding the dish, aiming it at the desired satellite, and getting the signal to the receiver.
Still, for those who are into technical things, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of getting your first free TV signal from the sky! And unlike the shortwave radio signals that excited our fathers and grandfathers, these signals rarely fade out, so once you’ve “peaked” the signal you can watch the stations on that satellite until you get sick of them or they go away, whichever comes first. And with many people losing free “over the air” television due to the DTV transition, now might be the time to explore the world of Free To Air television, if you are so inclined (and are not adverse to the risk of spending money on equipment that may not be usable after some period of time).
Just one thing, DON’T call your local TV antenna installer and ask him to come out an install one of these systems – unless he’s also into this, he’s probably not going to know what the heck you are talking about. This is definitely a Do-It-Yourself project for most folks. Commercial installers know about commercial systems, like Dish Network and DirecTV, and they would be happy to install one of those systems for you. My only advice with regard to those services is, seriously, make them put the dish on a pole in your yard, unless you like leaks in your roof, unsightly cable runs, and no TV after a wet, heavy snow (unless you climb up on a wet, slippery roof to clean the snow off the dish). Installers hate pole mounts because they have to make two trips (one to mix and pour the cement, then a day or two later to finish the install) so you may have to put your foot down and say “no yard pole, go away and I’ll get someone else, because you’re not putting a dish on my roof!!” But just remember, even if your roof doesn’t leak immediately after an install, that just means it’s going to take a while for the leaks to form — but once they do, what do you think your chances will be of getting that installer to come back and fix the damage?
Anyway, I’m not trying to talk you into this. Most people who read this article won’t pursue Free To Air satellite any further, and that’s fine – too many users might hasten the departure of the remaining free (unscrambled) feeds. But on the other hand, too few users and it’s not worth it to the equipment manufacturers to build and market the receivers. So if you are truly interested, check out the forum mentioned above, and the sponsors on that site (and also the Global Communications site, run by an enthusiast and equipment dealer in Wisconsin).
Reuters (and serveral other sources) are reporting that “A proposed Senate compromise to delay the nationwide switch to digital TV … would postpone the transition date to June 12 from the planned February 17, on worries that consumers are not ready.”
Had this action been taken six months ago, it would not be a problem. Had it been taken three months ago, there would only have been minor issues. But folks, it is only three and a half weeks until the scheduled transition date (and by the time any legislation is actually passed, it will probably be somewhere between two and three weeks).
The first point I would make, and which many have already made in various forums, is that anyone who hasn’t gotten the message about the conversion by now probably isn’t ever going to get it. In the last twelve months I think I’ve seen more ads about the DTV transition than political ads (and remember, last year was an election year). Anyone who’s ignored the ten gazillion ads they’ve likely seen already isn’t going to suddenly jump out of their La-Z-Boy and decide to do something, just because Congress gives them another four months.
But the bigger problem is that there are going to be a lot of unanticipated consequences if we delay the transition now. That is because many stations have already started to make preparations for the final transition. For example, several stations have already cut power to their analog transmitters, so people in fringe areas may not be getting a good signal on those stations in either analog or digital format until after the transition.
For example, WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids has already cut the power on their analog signal on channel 13. Their temporary digital signal is way up on UHF channel 39. The plan is that after the transition, they will move their digital signal back to channel 13 with full power. In the meantime, people in their fringe coverage areas may not be able to receive either their analog or digital signals reliably.
And it’s not just that one station. When I mentioned this on Twitter this morning, Twitterer @quetwo replied that “WILX, WXYZ, WYSM are all lowering power — WKAR had to turn off analog already.” And that’s just in Michigan, folks.
Here’s another example of why some of us have been waiting for the transition. The area where we live is sort of in between the GrandRapids/Kalamazoo/Battle Creek market and the Cadillac/Traverse City market. Depending on which way the antenna is pointed, we can (usually) get a watchable analog signal from either WWMT in Kalamazoo or WWTV in Cadillac, both of which are CBS affiliates. But WWMT’s transmitter is in the same general direction as most of the transmitters for the other stations we watch, so we tend to stay on that one. While we get a much clearer picture from their digital signal, the problem is that right now their digital transmitter is on channel 2, which if you know anything about how television waves propagate is the worst possible channel they could be on with regard to interference from and with other stations (especially in the spring of the year).
To compound the problem, there are existing analog transmitters on channel 2 in Detroit, Chicago, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. So, WWMT cannot run too “hot” with their digital transmitter power, in order not to cause interference with those stations, and at the same time all those other analog stations are causing interference to WWMT’s digital signal. The result in the outermost parts of their coverage area is complete dropouts in picture and sound, which can last as long as a half minute, or longer.
Now, the post transition plan is this: WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, which has their analog transmitter on channel 8 and their digital transmitter on channel 7, is going to stay on channel 7 post transition. That means that channel 8 opens up and WWMT is going to move their digital transmitter to that frequency. ANY channel above the FM radio band (which is between channels 6 and 7) is far less susceptible to co-channel interference from distant transmitters in the first place, but also there are far fewer sources of potential interference on channel 8. So we would likely get a far better signal from WWMT in two ways: First, the aforementioned reduced interference, and second, they could increase their power and not have to worry as much about stepping on another station’s signal.
And my point is, if you bought a converter box or a digital-ready television and are getting marginal signals on some of the weaker/more distant stations, reception may very likely improve for you after the transition. Don’t fall victim to those highly deceptive cable or satellite ads that imply that you must subscribe to their service to continue to watch television – at worst, you might have to get rid of that old antenna that your father (or grandfather) put on the roof back at the dawn of television, and get a decent antenna (but DON’T look for one that says “digital” or “DTV” on the box – that’s just marketing hype. Any TV antenna with similar specifications works equally well for analog or digital signals, even if it doesn’t say a word about DTV on the box. Oh, and it doesn’t have to say “color” for you to pick up color television signals, either!). In a fringe area you will need a larger antenna than if you are closer to the transmitters, but you can go to a site like TV Fool to help determine just what type of antenna you really need.
My only concern is that if Congress delays the DTV transition now, a lot of us who’ve already prepared for the transition are going to have four more months of marginal signals on both analog and digital channels, especially when watching those stations that have already started to decommission their analog equipment. If you share similar concerns, you may want to call your U.S. Senators and your U.S. Representative first thing Monday morning. Let’s not put this off any longer just because some people have refused to prepare for the transition (and probably still won’t, until the signal on their analog TV turns to snow).
Besides, do you really want to be bombarded with four more months of those damn DTV conversion commercials and PSA’s?
Believe it or not, there are still people in the United States that do not subscribe to Cable TV service, or to pay Satellite service. There may be many reasons for this, from feeling that the cable and satellite companies charge too much, to not being heavy TV watchers, to having discovered that there’s a lot of free (and legal!) programming available via satellite if you have the right equipment and know how to use it (hint: The magic search phrase is “Free-To-Air“, and that is all you’re getting out of me on the subject).
The problem is that when Analog TV stations go off the air on February 17, 2009, there are going to be a lot of people who have problems receiving stations – particularly those in “fringe” areas where the signal strength isn’t that great. The issue with digital TV is it’s an all-or-nothing proposition – you either get crystal clear picture and sound, or none at all, depending on the signal strength. And with over the air TV, signal strength can vary, for example, when an airplane passes overhead. This can case the picture and sound to freeze up at various intervals and for various lengths of time.
But there is another issue. Often, people who live in a fringe area can receive signals from more than one direction that are of nearly equal strength. For example, if you live at a certain point between Grand Rapids and Lansing in Michigan, you might receive stations from both communities nearly equally well, IF you have your antenna pointed toward their transmitter. And therein lies the rub. If you have a tall antenna (as is often required in fringe areas to avoid the aforementioned signal dropouts) you can put a rotor on it and change the antenna direction, but a) this takes time, b) it may be difficult to get the antenna pointed in precisely the right direction each time it’s moved, and c) If you are feeding more than one TV set (or VCR or whatever) you may improve the signal on one set at the expense of losing a desired signal on another (whereupon the spouse and/or kids start yelling at you).
The way to avoid that is to have two antennas (either on the same or separate masts), each pointed in the respective correct direction for the signals you want to receive. But even with analog signals, it has always been difficult to combine signals from two antennas. With digital you have the added factor that you cannot try different configurations and actually see how much it is improving or degrading the signal (the all-or-nothing thing, remember?). So what we will need in the coming months is a way to digitally combine the signals from two separate antennas. Something like this (pdf file), in other words. What that device does is to take a digital channel and convert it to another channel, so it can be inserted into a different antenna or cable feed. It’s built for use by cable companies, and priced that way too (which is to say, way out of the range of many home users).
What we need now is a consumer-grade version of that device, one that may not meet cable company specs but would be good enough for home use. If it could convert multiple channels, that would be a plus. The idea is, you’d have your two antennas, one your “primary” and the other your “secondary”. You’d feed both the primary and secondary antenna feeds into this box, and a single output would emerge with a combined feed. However, rather than simply acting as a signal combiner (which would be bad), it would actually take one or more channels off the secondary antenna and convert them digitally to a totally different frequency, then insert those “clean” converted channel streams into the original (primary) feed. My suggestion would be to convert the secondary channels down to channels 2,3,4, and/or 5 (which will be unused in many parts of the country) and then have a setting that switches in a high-pass filter, so no signal on those channels is passed from the primary antenna feed. But the point is, we need something in the (preferably) under-$100 range that can do this (at least for a single channel). Given that digital TV converter boxes can be built for under $50, I suspect that a consumer grade unit could be built for not much more than that.
Granted that there would not be a huge market for these, yet the aforemention Free-To-Air receivers are built overseas and sold here for not much more than $100, and I have to think that what they do is probably at least as complicated as the device I’m suggesting. And while no self-respecting cable company would use one of those as their satellite receiver (for those few channels they need to receive that are not scrambled), they are nevertheless good enough for home use, so I see something of a parallel in this situation – we don’t need something that can be rack-mounted and that will feed 100,000 customers, just something that will feed a few TV sets or other devices in a home TV distribution system. Could someone – Channel Master or Winegard, perhaps – build and sell this thing, please?