September 2014
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Why “New Media” is no replacement for “Old Media.”

200px-NetNeutrality_logo.svgThe DC circuit court struck a stinging blow to any thoughts about so called “Net Neutrality” when it overturned the FCC attempts to force Comcast the abide by its rules regarding internet access.  The three judge panel ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to force Internet Service Providers (ISP) to give equal access to all its customers.  In a nut shell, this means that companies like Comcast, ATT, Verizon, can filter search engine results and traffic, baning  websites for no specific reasons.

So much for net neutrality.  Say I type something here that is critical of one of those companies, or any ISP for that matter.  With a few key strokes, my site will disappear.  Gone.  Just like that.  For those that think the internet is this wonderful open global village thing that can spread the word and and as a sort of modern day check and balance system, think again.  In this day and age, when corporations have the same rights as people, look for the large ISPs to spend significant lobbying dollars to keep the laws tilted in their favor.  I would expect to also see quite a few campaign contributions to legislators that are friendly to large corporations.

There are several letter writing campaigns, urging the FCC to change its classification of ISP’s to a common carrier status, something that would put the ISP’s squarely under the FCC’s control.   I look upon those with a jaundiced eye.  Perhaps the FCC can be convinced to change the rules, this time.  What will happen when a new FCC gets appointed?  Will those changes stay in effect?  The cynical side of me says no.

Independently run media outlets have traditionally acted as a backstop in our society.  There are fewer and fewer of those left these days.  I will readily acknowledge that the current crop of radio station owners, with some minor exceptions, have left the industry in a shambles.  Their decision to place profit above all considerations, in spite of  the license being granted in the public trust, has decimated news rooms, reduced staffing, and relegated community involvement  to a minor paper work shuffle at license renewal time.  All of this and more have conspired to make radio dull and uninformative.   Bland canned formats created and programmed thousands of miles away have ruined local radio flavor.  No wonder why people spend money to download from Itunes.

Yet, radio listenership is still high.  Radio’s saving grace is it is nearly universal, everyone has a radio, most households have four or five radios.  The technology is time tested and it works well.  Almost every square mile of the US is covered by broadcast radio signals.  Some areas are sparse, but there is at least one or two stations that come in.  People are used to radio, there is no learning curve, no subscriber fees, no censorship from a huge faceless mega corporation.  Well, that last part is in theory, anyway.  It is almost too much of a coincidence that mega corporations also own the majority of radio stations too.

Television as a medium is almost gone.  Very few people actually watch over the air TV, most people get their TV piped into their house via cable.  Once again, as those in the NY metropolitan area know, there is no guarantee that the local cable operator will carry a broadcast station, vis a vis the WABC-7 Cablevision dispute from last month.

Newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, even the once mighty New York Times has seen better days.

That leaves us with Radio to fill in role of un-censored informer.  Can they?  Will they?  It would be a radical departure from the current course and only time will tell.

Communications infrastructure vulnerability

I was speaking with a friend of mine recently about some interference issues he was having at an FM transmitter site.  There were several cellular and PCS tenants at this site and something from the FM transmitter was interfering with the GPS receivers.  This one very small glitch was causing multiple carriers to go off line, basically shutting down the entire wireless infrastructure at this particular site.

GPS signals are used for syncing carrier frequencies and modulation timing for CDMA and TDMA that all cellular, PSC and 3G, 4G (or whatever G) wireless systems use to seamlessly hand off users from one site to another.  Without it, the entire system will shut down.

What would happen to communications in this country if all GPS were interrupted?  When I was in the military, we spoke often about high altitude nuclear detonations and the possible effects it would have on our communications circuits.  In fact, we drilled for such things.  Often.  What, if anything, are wireless carriers doing to keep their sites on line if, heaven forbid, somebody does something to disrupt GPS?  If terrestrial radio and television broadcasting is going to be replaced by 3G and 4G wireless networks, how redundant are they?  I know, for example, many cell sites do not have long term backup power.  They have battery banks, which in a power outage, may last 6-10 hours, but after that, the site is down.

Further, how about vulnerabilities getting the data to and from these sites?  Most cell sites rely on some type of TELCO circuit, usually a T-1 (DS-1) or multiple T-1’s to interface with the wired network.  This includes voice, text and data services.  If those circuits are down, then anything connected to them will be off line.

What about redundant transmitters, antennas, receivers, etc.  How much of the current wireless infrastructure is backed up with spares?  It causes me worry to think that someday traditional broadcasters will be going out of business due to poor financial planning, leaving us all to subscription based data services that may or may not be there in an emergency.  At least with many radio and TV stations, there are generators, backup transmitters, microwave systems and so forth.  Most good broadcasters have emergency plans for restoration of service during a disaster.  EAS may not be the greatest thing ever, but right now, it is the only emergency communications plan we have. Radio is still the best and most robust way to communicate vital information during emergencies.  Cell sites go off line along with whatever G wireless service, cable TV systems go off line due to power outages or damaged distribution networks, land line phones can be taken out due to power interruptions at the company office or damaged networks.

Why do I care? Why should you care?  Because, as I have eluded in previous posts, with the demise of local newspapers, the demise of local radio, the erosion of local TV news coverage and the general trivialization of our political apparatus on the local and national level, we are loosing our voice.  We will loose our democracy.  Right now, the US is on the verge of becoming an oligarchy or a corporatocracy.

What road are we traveling down when unrestricted free access to information is gone?  The internet is a great resource, but it is not free.  What will happen to the price of internet access when competing information and entertainment technologies such as radio, TV, and newspapers disappear?  Look to our transportation sector for an example.  Gone are the vast majority of passenger rail roads that criss crossed the country for nearly 100 years.  In many places, public transportation is laughable.  How do you get to work?  How do you get to the store?  How much will $5.00 per gallon gas effect your life?  More importantly, what can you do about it when the cost of fuel gets expensive? Nothing.  Most people are stuck in there suburban homes with not even a convenience store within walking distance.

What will happen when terrestrial radio goes away?  I shutter to think.

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

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