NAB thinks Translators offer more value than LPFM

Alternate title: “I love Stupidity,” somebody else’s, usually not my own.  It’s a bit hard to reconcile the NAB’s desire for translators against the need and strong community support for local radio.  The original intent of translators was to fill in coverage areas of existing FM licenses within the parent stations protected contour.  Very few translators are actually used for that purpose today.  They have, instead, morphed into vast over the air relay networks for NPR and religious stations or are relaying programming of HD-2 channels which would otherwise not be heard.  Why we would need more of that, I don’t know.

The unfortunate part of all that stupidity is the side effects.  Think of the stupid driver who cuts of a tractor trailer on the interstate and causes a big pile up.  There are the potential injuries to those involved in the accident but also the inconvenience to all those stuck in miles of backed up traffic.  That is a fairly minor occurrence.

With big corporate government, the size and scale of stupidity can reach epic proportions. To wit:  During the natural disasters that overtook the northeast, indeed other areas of the country as well, local radio was proven to be a reliable, sometimes life saving means of communications time and time again.  Yet, in spite of all that, the NAB seems to think that LPFM stations (community radio) should be second to cross band translators broadcasting AM stations and HD-2 channels.  Regarding FM translators on AM stations, the NAB says:

NAB first commends and supports the Commission’s proposal to eliminate the restriction on the use of FM translators by AM stations to translators that were authorized as of May 1, 2009. FM translators enable AM stations to overcome inherent technical disadvantages that limit audio quality compared to other services, thus limiting their service to the public and even threatening their economic viability.

Oh where to begin. First of all, AM stations do not have inherent technical disadvantages, that is a myth.  Off the shelf AM receivers are of inferior quality and make a well designed, well executed AM station sound like a telephone. If one were to listen an older AM radio or AM on a receiver with variable bandwidth IF, you would find that it can sound quite good, if not very good. The problem is that the receiver manufactures never carried through with the promise to open up the bandwidth following the implementation of NRSC-2 in 1991.  One should wonder why.

Second, there are many AM stations out there that are economically viable. Those stations that have local programming and serve the community of license and have not been neglected or turned into a automated syndicated radio repeater.  Now, could a class C or class D AM station benefit from a translator at night, sure. That may not be a bad distinction to draw, especially for those class D stations with no night time operating authority.

Regarding more translators in general, it is difficult to imagine what all those new signals will be used for, other than more of the same (relaying distant, out of market religious stations, NPR stations or HD-2 programming which nobody cares about).    The FM band is already full of such things and could actually use less, not more.

While unfortunate, the NAB’s position is not surprising.  They do the bidding of their dues paying members, after all.  The anti-competition we are a monopoly stance of the NAB members is not new either. Remember the required economic impact study required by the LCRA on the LPFM vs full power commercial FM stations.  To think that a 100 watt LPFM could significantly impact the business of a class A, B or C FM station is laughable.  Yet, it was a requirement stuck into the bill at the behest of the NAB.

It is up to the broadband minded FCC to see how to slice the remaining FM spectrum up and whether the corporitist NAB’s argument holds water, or the rising call of the people who want a return of local radio and local community service will be heard.

This is a video of what happened during Tropical Storm Irene in Ulster County, where I live:

We are truly fortunate that no one here was killed. In the mean time, the waters around here are still receding, we had some additional flooding Wednesday (9/7) with another 6 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Lee with flood warnings still in effect for several local creeks.

In my neck of the woods, we have nine radio stations licensed within about a 16 mile radius.  One is religious, one is a college station, the other is a classical music format programmed from Albany, 90 miles away, one is a LPFM run by a local high school and two are commercial AM or FM station.  The commercial stations used to be located in downtown Ellenville but moved to Poughkeepsie, about 30 miles away in 1999.  The religious, college, and classical stations are small and have no backup systems or interest in emergency programming.  That leaves the high school LPFM, WELV-LP.

In the height of the storm, 11.53 inches of rain had fallen in the previous 8 hours, the power was out, cable was out, the internet unavailable, the Verizon telephone company office in town was almost underwater, we had two sources of local Ulster county information; WDST (100.1 MHz, class A) in Woodstock and WELV-LP in Ellenville.  WDST  studios are located in Bearsville, which is about 25 miles north of here.  They are a locally owned, locally programmed station with a good record of community support.  They did a good job updating emergency information, flooded roadways, emergency shelter information, power restoration information, dry ice, alternate emergency numbers in case 911 went out, rallying points for local fire departments, etc.  Ellenville Central School district’s WELV-LP also did a good job, although much more confined to the local area around Ellenville and have a much smaller coverage area.  Still, they were live on the air with up to date information.  Thankfully.

Next time, who knows?

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.

In the public interest

Once upon a time, usually during a license renewal period, a radio station listener might hear the following on the air:

On May 15, 2001, Radio Station KZZZ (FM) was granted a license by the Federal Communication Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until December 1, 2005. Our license will expire December 1, 2005. We must file for license renewal with the FCC by August 1, 2005. When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection during our regular business hours. It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last four years. Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the FCC by November 1, 2005. Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is a available at the KZZZ offices, located at 555 Main Street in Smallville, or may be obtained from the Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C. 20554.

So what does “Granted to serve the public interest mean?”  Perhaps having a news department, or sponsoring a debate in the local mayor’s race, perhaps a Sunday morning church service.  Maybe some High School football or even broadcasting emergency information such as tornado warnings or a flood warning.

How about broadcasting a flood warning to your listeners that are taking part in a station promotion?  How about if said station promotion happens to be taking place in a flood plain, and warnings issued several hours before the promotion is scheduled?  No?  You can’t make this stuff up, no one would believe you:

A Clear Channel station in Grand Rapids, MI threw its annual B93 Concert Bash on June 20 in nearby Ionia by the Grand Rapids River, apparently oblivious to flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service.

No, nothing bad can come of this right? right?  Of course the inevitable happend.  The river overflowed it’s banks, causing concert goers to flee for their lives and flooding the parking area submerging their cars.  Naturally, Clear Channel will pay those who had their cars towed out of the mud right.  Nope, you listeners are on your own, tough shit.

Then there is the now infamous Minot train derailing. For those not familar, a train carring anhydrous ammonia derailed and spilled it’s contents.  When local officials attempted to activate EAS, they couldn’t.  They then attempted to call the LP-1 station on the phone to get the information out, nobody was home.  Clear Channel placed the blame squarely on the local law enforecement agencies stating that they had not installed their EAS equipement properly and had changed frequencies on their radio link without notifying the radio station.  Perhaps, but it seems there is more than enough blame to share.  Were station employees proactive with the local government officials?  I can’t say, but they should have been.  EAS is a team effort.

Not to pile onto Clear Channel too much, Cumulus seems to encourage their listeners to head out doors, enjoy the good weather.  During a tornado warning.  Nice.

By this, It would appear that the public is interested in fleeing for their lives, having their cars flooded, all the while wondering what is going on.

No matter how hard people try, nothing can replace radio’s role in alerting the public.  Mass e-mail systems, Blackberries, and other internet based systems will fail when the power goes out and kills the supporting ethernet infrastructure.  Cellphones, PCS devices, I-phones become unreliable during emergencies because the TELCO system that supports them gets clogged with traffic.  Many cellphone towers do not have backup generators.  During the events of 9/11/2001, I experienced first hand the difficulties trying to use the wired telephone network due to congestion.  Since the HDTV rollout, cable companies have become the backbone for the distribution of TV signals.  Coaxial based cable systems rely on booster amplifiers every mile or two to keep the signal strengths usable.  Those amplifiers need power from the utility grid.  Not to mention, most TVs cannot run on batteries and lack portability.

Almost everyone owns a battery powered portable radio.  When the shit hits the fan, they will turn it on.  What will they hear?

So where is the official outrage?  Why has not the big radio CEO’s,  public trustees each, been dragged before congress to explain themselves?