LBA asks the Old RF Curmudgeon “Now that the remaining analog TV nightlight stations have gone dark and the DTV transition fireworks are pretty much over, what is the success, or lack thereof, of the enterprise.  This event is important because it was a major field test of whether the general population can be successfully moved from old to new technology in a scheduled and relatively short time frame.”

The OLD RF CurmudgeonTo the Curmudgeon, we seem to have failed the transition test.  Although we did “pretty much” get the job done, we failed hugely in adequately preparing the public to understand and to deal smoothly and easily with the transition.  And while there is plenty of blame to go around, the Curmudgeon believes that the bulk of it belongs squarely with the FCC.

Here the FCC’s failure is not limited to the well-known “converter box coupon” foul-up.  That’s a substantial matter, but it’s not as fundamental as the Commission’s major failure to properly educate the public for the technology change, a failure of the “Katrina” class magnitude on the FCC measurement scale.  And it’s more than just lack of a “basic knowledge and understanding” program, it’s also an almost total failure to supply the public with useful and needed information.

What should the missing FCC educational program have been?  The Curmudgeon can envision it, as he spent a portion of his career as an educator.

To the *broadcasters*, the missing FCC program should have included the following elements:

1.  Understand well, Mr. Broadcaster, that in the ATSC era you will in all probability have less ERP, together with the simultaneous requirement for higher receiver signal strengths than existed during analog days.  Prepare yourself and your viewers for the consequences!

2.  Understand that today’s OTA viewers have sloppy receive antenna systems, mostly indoors, or if outdoors, probably corroded and underperforming from their being exposed to the atmosphere for several decades.  You have to help educate the consumers that they will need to check performance and plan upgrades.

3.  Understand the critical difference in building penetration between VHF high-band and UHF signals!  This is simple physics, but the GMs don’t know it.  They have to approve the final digital RF channel assignment.

4.  Give up on the traditional idea of “branding:” “We’re NBC-Channel 4, and we need to remain ‘Channel 4′ for our viewers!”  “NBC” is your brand, not “Channel 4.”  Channel 4 signals won’t exist any longer, “Channel 4.1″ has no physical meaning, and you’re going to be Channel 36!

5.  And don’t trot out the tired argument, “We need to keep some sort of analog going for our viewers who are too poor or too ignorant to follow us to digital, but who still need access to emergency information.”  Any technology transition loses some stragglers; that’s inevitable.  And the left-behinds will still have abundant access to another wonderful means of receiving emergency information: it’s called “radio!”

The FCC completely failed to address the fundamental problem that consumers have, which is that they no longer have any practical notion about how RF works and what it takes to make it work!  That wasn’t true fifty years ago, when there was little cable service and indoor antennas were almost unknown.  Then consumers “knew” that it took a VHF roof-top antenna to get a picture and they relatively easily worked through that issue.  Today even that modicum of basic knowledge has been lost; one young sales gal at a major television retailer honestly didn’t know whether a particular TV model could even accept an outdoor antenna!

To the consumers, the FCC education program should have included the following elements:

1.  Understand that some broadcasters will change (RF) transmitting channels in transitioning from analog to digital, and that many broadcasters will be transmitting with less power on digital.  If you are an OTA viewer, you will almost certainly need to upgrade your receiving antenna to accommodate the channel and power changes, regardless of whether you are using an ATSC receiver or a converter box.

2.  If you are using an indoor antenna, you may very well need to install an outdoor antenna in its place to ensure satisfactory reception.  Installing an outdoor antenna (either yourself or via a contractor) is not a major thing; it’s less troublesome, for example, than launching the space shuttle.

3.  In order to get the right kind of antenna for your needs, we the FCC (should) have published on our Web site a table of the TV broadcasters serving your community, their *actual* digital RF channels, and the approximate geographical location of their transmitters.  Note whether any of your broadcasters will remain in the Channels 2 – 6 block, and determine how many are within the Channels 7 – 13 (“VHF”) and 14 – 51 (“UHF”) blocks.  Then buy and install the appropriate antenna for your local needs.  NOTE:  THE FCC NEVER PUBLISHED THIS CONSUMER-CRITICAL INFORMATION!

To the FCC:

This matter of retaining the old analog channel numbers in the current broadcast PSIP is highly counterproductive and actually increases consumer confusion.  The US public can indeed process a “change” in their local stations’ transmitting channel numbers; they’ve done it already in using cable and satellite distribution systems!

In the Curmudgeon’s area, one station actually did change its PSIP ID on transition day to indicate its new RF channel…..and the Commission promptly ordered them to reset their PSIP back to the former analog channel!  On a different local channel, the PSIP still identifies the station’s former analog channel (as “XY.1″) despite this station’s having relocated its digital signal elsewhere.  But then a second station, which is actually now using the “XY” RF channel for its digital signal, has a test signal up bearing the PSIP “RF -XY.9.” Two different signals bearing the same PSIP ID!  Very confusing.

This situation is sheer stupidity, and there is no need whatsoever for secrecy in the RF channel assignments!  Dear FCC, after all the other transition mess is finally settled, set a “date certain” for every broadcaster simultaneously to switch its PSIP to its actual digital RF channel, and let’s have an end to this mess!  Give the broadcasters lots of time to publicize the RF channel identification switch, and be certain to remind everyone to “scan the channels the next morning, just one more time.”

FCC, trust the consumer with the information necessary for him to succeed.  “Education is expensive….but ignorance is even more expensive!”  And please FCC, let’s not go down this path again!

What do you think?

“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

About The Author

LBA Group, Inc. has 60 years of experience in providing RF asset solutions and risk management for industrial and telecommunications infrastructure assets. The group is comprised of LBA Technology, a leading manufacturer and integrator of radio frequency systems, lightning protection and EMC equipment for broadcast, industrial and government users worldwide; the professional consultancy Lawrence Behr Associates and LBA University, providing on-site and online professional training. The companies are based in Greenville, N.C., USA.

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