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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Amateur Radio

There’s a group of people out there – men and women, both – who are more giving, more helpful during emergencies, and probably less appreciated than about any other collection of folks you could find.
Specifically, they’re amateur radio operators.
You probably don’t know much about them beyond those funny license plates that combine letters and numbers and, underneath say, “Amateur Radio” or “Ham Radio.”  Or they may be the group that you were blaming for interference with your television, though it’s far more likely that such interference was coming from a citizens’ band operator (an entirely different group, most of whom have no knowledge of radio technology).  The CB operator is interested solely in communicating with other CB operators – at their licensed or greatly-increased power.
Why am I writing about amateur radio operators?
Well, first, to say thanks.  You’ll find ham operators helping out in just about any emergency.  And the bigger the problem, the more they seem to offer.  Emergency radio traffic and messages, coordination of aid and relief, even first aid and delivery of medicine.  More than once, ham operators have been pressed into service as air traffic controllers operating at ad hoc air strips when airports have been closed.
In many places they’re still the backbone of the public’s side of emergency action.  
It’s for the money, right?  Uh, no.  Especially since operating on any of the amateur frequencies (bands) requires a license which explicitly forbids use of amateur radio for “pecuniary interest.”  No.  They do it for the service.  And they maintain readiness – regular meetings, field day operations (going out, setting up temporary operations and passing traffic on a regular basis), meetings with local, state and even federal emergency officials.
Quakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, lost children, just about any emergency you can imagine, you’ll find amateur radio operators mobilizing to help.
And you ask again, why am I writing about this?
Well, I spent a part of a recent weekend at a “hamfest”.  This is a convention of amateur radio operators.  It consists of learning sessions, FCC examinations, group meetings (like emergency operating groups), and an esoteric flea market offering items 99 percent of folks wouldn’t recognize, let alone want.  
If you have interest in radio technology – and by that I mean any sort of wireless communication – it’s a blast.  You can find everything from the latest computer and wifi gear to an iconoscope.  And if ever there were a place where one man’s junk is…well, this is it.
Cool.  And, yet one more time, why am I writing about this?  Well, by observation, I’ve established that the average age of a ham operator is somewhere between 60 and deceased.  There’s just been very little influx.  Nothing to interest the kiddies.  And that’s doubly disappointing since most amateurs acquired their first [usually “novice”] license in their early teens – or before!
So I got to thinking, why the lack of newbies?  Here’s what I’ve come up with 
·    The mystique is gone.  Once upon a time, you could tune up your homebrew rig into a homebrew antenna and “work” into any number of states and, depending on frequency, around the world.  You’d exchange QSL cards with the other party, noting the specifics of the contact.  Today, you boot up your factory-made computer using your factory-written OS into a factory-made modem and across a pair of wires (possibly through a factory-made wifi transmitter/receiver) to your Facebook page.  There, someone may have left a message wanting to contact you.  Afterward, you may even exchange emails.  There was a magic to waves leaving an antenna and delivering a message halfway around the world.  That’s been doused by the multitude of means by which we can achieve the same end.  For some, there’s a bigger mystery to data packets migrating from device to air to line to server to line to server to friend to deliver the message, “C U L8r.” 
There’s just no big deal to radio.
·    It’s a throwaway society.  Kids want the latest and the best.  Build something?  Nah.  Takes too long.  And, besides, I want the same xyz that everyone else has.
·    There’s not a lot of interest in helping others.  Wow!  Where’d that come from?  Well, with FEMA around along with a number of other government agencies, a lot of people feel that their taxes are taking care of paying for emergencies and for the help needed in the middle of them.  “Hey, I pay my taxes.  I shouldn’t have to do more than that,” seems to be the battle cry.  Worse, though, are the reports that some government agencies have become uncooperative – eschewing the help of dangerously suspect outsiders like ham operators.
The real loss is in the technology that’s not being developed.  If you look back through the history of radio and television, you’ll see so much of the development came from individuals applying for and operating experimental stations, or holding “ham” tickets.  2XG was Lee DeForest’s experimental radio station in New York.  If it weren’t for DeForest’s audion, we’d still be waiting for anything beyond Morse code. Charles Herrold’s 6XF became KQW which then became KCBS. There are many of others – launched by rugged individualists rather than corporations.  And Philo T. Farnsworth and his work with television changed the “face” of communication.  I call them rugged because you have to know that they were bitten by their power supplies once or twice.  No fun. 
Usually on their own, they develop circuits, write software, and spend their own time putting it all together to create a new product or service.  And they do it because they just want to.  Most realize that they’ll never see an ROI.  But that’s not what they’re about.  It’s that big smile when they break the distance record at 243gHz or do a moonbounce, or radio-control their lawnmower.  
And a lot of products have come from them – not all from the knowledge required for the license, itself, but from the analytical thinking that it brings about.  And we owe a lot more to ham operators than we admit.  For everything they’ve created, for the services they perform, and because, by a far greater percentage than the general population, they’re genuinely good people.
By the way, if you’re one of those genuinely good people and you’ve always wanted to figure out how things work, or build something electronic, an amateur radio ticket isn’t that hard to get.  You can ask around or check the web. (American Radio Relay League) is a great place to start.  If you have a kid who’s interested in the subject, send him or her there, too.  In fact, it can be a pretty cool family pursuit.  For younger folk, besides the radio experience, a ham ticket today provides a good foundation for the IT world.  And, by the way, the converse – IT being a good foundation for radio/television – isn’t necessarily true!
So thanks, to all of you out there having fun helping.  
NB:  Just a few additional noteworthy hams:  Howard Hughes, Nolan Bushnell (Atari)  Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (first transmission of human voice), Robert Moog, Julian Hirsch, Luke Montgomery, Steve Wozniak, Joseph H. Taylor, Jack Kilby, Leo Fender, David Packard (the “P” in “HP”), Wilson Greatbatch (invented the pacemaker), Perry Spencer (inventor of the microwave oven)  Norio Ohga and Akio Morita (Chairman and Founder of Sony, respectively) and about half of all astronauts!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Everyone! Stay CALM! I'm in charge here. - Alexander Haig

The CALM Act. 
I really didn’t think I’d see a lot about it but it seems the CALM act is everywhere. Yes, today’s the deadline for implementation and, no doubt, tomorrow the Notices of Apparent Liability will start flying.
I’ll be up-front with you:  I’ve written about this before and about the futility of passing laws about anything that starts with “psycho”, in this case, psychoacoustics, especially when trying to rely on machines to control the outcome.  Might as well outlaw a disease; in a similar vein, it doesn’t matter since physics behaves as it does and doesn’t pay much attention to congress.
More on that later.  I want to discuss this little thing called compliance.  You see, not only must stations comply with the rules, they must document their compliance.  A number of operations maintain programming for 90 days after airing.  Others, as much as 2 years.
The 90 days is the minimum retention period and during that time, the station must be able to provide any segment of the broadcast day to an inspector or government representative should they request it.
That means that if a viewer challenges a telecast – maybe he/she heard a commercial that was too loud – the commission can come back and say, “Give us 5 minutes on either side of the commercial and the commercial, itself.  Oh, and send the log of the dialnorm on the audio.”  Huh?  Yep.  You have to be able to step up and provide the data/metadata that supports your claim that you were legal at the time.
Stations are keeping the logs for longer and longer periods because of the possibility of complaint.  But wait, there’s more.  It’s not just CALM compliance.  It’s everything else.  Closed captioning?  You don’t want to be challenged.  Political ads?  Same thing.  Contests and all else, too.  You really want to be able to pull up the goods, send ‘em off to the commission with a note like, “See?!”
That’s a “fur piece” as Bob Shreve used to say on the SchoenlingAll-Night Theater, from the old audio or VHS loggers.  It requires much more.  And, son of a gun, there are a couple of devices out there that’ll do it and more.
Last nite, a bunch of us got the inside scoop from Ken Dillard at Digital Nirvana, Inc.  Now I don’t know how they decided on that name – maybe it means somebody with all 1’s on their bank account number.  That aside, these guys make the Monitor IQ box.  Yes, there are others out there.   This box is particularly intriguing.  It can do it all.  And more.  Ken explained how it integrates with sales, programming, legal, and engineering.  First, you can watch all the stations in the market.  Then, as it archives, you can pull up any segment and look at it – content, captioning, CALM, and (in metered markets) ratings.  
You have to think about watching a sportscast running against other stations in the market and easily spotting what keeps folks around and what drives them away…overnight.  This is not a cheap box, but given all the new rules and the fines that can be incurred, it’s cheap insurance.
And now for my favorite topic:  the audio, itself.  Let’s all pick dialnorm -24.  Cool.  Our processors are going to take everything to -24.  That’s cool, too, but, first do they really know what’s going on around them?  When Martha and John are whispering sweet nothings on the porch swing, should the processing really take the following commercial down to that level?  As it brings it up, it creates a different mood.  Is that OK with the advertiser?  How does it change the spot?  And what happens to the louder one after it?  Oh, and did I pay for a particular level of modulation when I bought the commercial time?
Let’s go farther.  What if (as I’ve written about before) the mix has an overabundance of highs or lows?  What are you going to do?  The system says dialog is the benchmark.  Well,  just the simplest look at an oscilloscope while listening to dialog tells you that there isn’t a 1:1 relationship between the actual power in a piece of audio and the apparent loudness.  But that’s exactly what we’re asking a processor to look for and act upon.
So, when that 5.1 mix comes barreling through and totally masks the dialog, what’s going to give?  Well, as they say in the retirement home, “Depends.”
And that means that every mix is different and it’ll be the psychoacoustic elements that will cue the viewer as to whether the sound is balanced from scene to scene.  Once again, you can process it like crazy but until you can teach the machine to listen like a human, it’s going to get it wrong a good part of the time.  Check the link below.  Read it closely.  If you don’t see any problems, you didn’t read it closely!
And when you realize that most of the ATSC parameters for CALM and dialnorm are based on those developed in Europe (including France, the folks that gave us SECAM), you also know that it means stations will be compliant – and still sound bad.  How do I know?  Take a trip to London, Frankfurt or Rome.  Listen.   Case closed.
But, compliance is the goal so, congratulations to all the techs who have been slaving over the past months to get their stations to that point.  We’ll be listening...on receivers...all of which will vary and will interpret audio and its metadata differently, thereby creating a [vastly] different listening experience for each receiver owner.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Give me an L-F-ing Break

This is a general request.  It goes out to all the folks mixing audio for television.  It's a simple request, too:  Listen to your product before it goes out the door.  I mean, really listen!
Eight thousand years ago, when we laid back a final track, we listened to it.  Yeah, yeah, everybody listens to their tracks.  But, at the time, before stereo, MTS, BTSC and all the other acronyms, we listened on the studio monitor, then on a four-inch Quam squaker atop the audio console.  (We also viewed release video on a mono monitor, too, but that’s for another day.)
Any number of times the great audio on the JBL or Altec sounded like garbage on the Quam…and far worse than just what the poor response of that midget caused. 
Often the problem was the desire to pump a lot of bass into the signal.  Cool idea.  And on a console TV system with some semblance of an audio reproduction system, it sounded pretty good.  But that bass, when pushed through the 5 watt amp to a small speaker suddenly suffered from A) heavy distortion from the amp and B) even worse distortion as the tiny voicecoil, now getting some nice square waves from the amp, bottomed and topped out, taking the midrange with it. 
So, you listened on the small speaker and you heard the problems…and you remixed so that folks could actually hear intelligible audio. 
It’s 35 years later.  We’ve jumped over stereo, forgotten about quad and moved into at least 5.1 sound.  And, hurray for the dot-one.  That is if you have the audio system for it.  No, wait.  Even if you do have the system for it, it’s not a hurray.
Why, you ask?  No, really, I just heard someone ask why.  
The thinking on the creative side is, “Now we have some real audio.  Let’s use it all.”  And the production guys try to give creative what they want.  So when that Hummer is thundering across the salt flat, they mix the LFE’s (the low frequency effects…the dot-one part of 5.1 content) hot – really hot.
But, guess what.  After they listen on the studio monitors – in 5.1 and properly adjusted – many apparently don’t listen in other formats.  And, as far as I can tell, no one in the studio is listening through a TV broadcast audio processor…and, get this…I’m revealing a big secret here…all broadcasters are using them.
I’m not going to go into a lot of technical detail here.  But let me offer one example…You’ve produced a “smokin’” (hey world, would you stop with that word!) make that “driving” audio track.  Lots of LFE information.  It hits the station’s audio processor.
More than likely, that unit is a multiband processor.  If so, depending upon on its settings, it may squash the dynamic range considerably and completely change the ratio of LFE to audio.  And, again, depending upon settings, if there is a “bass coupling” control, that driving bass will upset the reproduced levels of the midrange and high frequencies, usually reducing them considerably.  
So you dump in a thunderous series of 40Hz sfz notes and the track pulses wonderfully.  Then, it hits the processor which, when it sees those pulses, lowers the overall gain – and you lose the dialog!
Right.  The dot-one tail is wagging the 5 dog.
Now, these days, finding good dialog is hard enough.  But then, to have to dig it out of the mud because of the LFE channel, well, that's just not fun.  It means either backing up with the DVR and trying to pick out a few of the words or just changing channels.
Then, don’t forget to figure in processing to comply with the CALM Act.  I have earlier posts on that so I won’t rehash it…but that has to be figured in and should be in the monitor chain at the post house.
And to go one step further...most home units put out 2 channel stereo, relying on external audio amps to decode to 5.1.  Oh, and that stereo may pass through a set’s processing, offering EQ and even “audio leveling” which, in most cases, is compression.  If the station processing didn’t crunch your track and destroy the ratio of LFE to music and dialog, the receiver’s waiting like a safety in the game you’re watching, to step on your mix with cleats.
Now, let’s say the viewer has a nice LED screen – flanked with its internal 2x6” speakers.  They don’t even hear the LFE information.  It may get to the speakers but it may not even generate any sound at the speakers.  So what does the viewer/listener hear?  Nothing but the audio level dropping and, probably, the dialog disappearing.  And, frankly, as a consumer, I don’t particularly like that.
Hey creative folks:  try to remember as you mix that pushing the excitement envelope can, in some cases, render the audio unintelligible.  I won’t point fingers but listen critically to just about any one-hour crime drama.  It ain’t pretty.
If your finishing house doesn’t have at least some gear to simulate the broadcast transmission process, ask ‘em why they don’t.  And if they do, insist that they use it.  Listen in 5.1, stereo, stereo small speaker, mono small speaker, and 7.1 if you can.  And here’s a tip:  listen on computer speakers, too.  And, shortly, you’ll want to check it on your iPhone’s earbuds.  No  doubt, in short order, multiple mixes will be packaged in the transport stream and be keyed in automatically by the receiver.
IFor now, though, if you listen on a number of possible receiving devices, I’ll tell you this:  the audio you leave with won’t be the same as the super-hot mix you had in mind.  But viewers/listeners will get the content.  And wouldn’t that be pleasant.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

TV's Back to the Future II

Well, the sequel is never as good as the original.  But, I wrote about Back to the Future before.  There's lots of news.
The FCC’s TV auction plan is in place.  If you’re not familiar with it and you’re A) a broadcaster, B) an advertiser, C) an agency person or, D) a viewer who likes HD television, you might want to get familiar with it.
Here’s the executive summary:   
·    Over-the-air television takes a lot of the radio frequency spectrum
·    The FCC wants more spectrum allotted to personal communications services like wireless Internet/broadband.  They want to be able to auction off spectrum to increase revenue to the government
·    The FCC has proposed allowing telecasters to combine their services onto a single channel, freeing up spectrum.  For this, each telecaster would receive a payment
Hey!  That’s pretty neat.  Let’s get channels 7 & 9 & 13* to combine inside one channel, say, “7”.  They’d keep their own identities, branding and other associated equity – even their number – but they’d all be contained in the channel that was formerly allocated solely to the owners of “7”.
That means that the frequencies that “9” and “13” occupied are now vacated and can be reassigned for PCS – through auction.  And, per the commission, the broadcasters so “sacrificing” their spectrum, will be rewarded financially.
Still cool?  Do you see everyone as a winner?  As the old army joke goes, “Not so fast, Mullany.”
When you put two or three stations inside a single channel, something has to give.  That give is on signal quality.  Without going into detail, it means that HD evaporates.  Under the current – and currently discussed – systems, there’s no not enough room inside 6mHz to cram multiple HD channels.  In fact, you won’t see two 720i signals inside the 6mHz channel without some significant adjustment to coding.
Fine, Len.  What does that have to do with me?
I guess first, the issue is that over-the-air 1080i and 720p – and maybe 720i may disappear from stations which choose to band together in a single channel.  With 8VSB, we already stuff 10 pounds of, uh, stuff in a 5 pound bag.  So there’s not much room for the higher quality signals.
Now that may be ameliorated by the fact that broadcasters could still supply the higher-definition signal to cable system headends, telcos, and to DTH satellite uplinks.  So subscribers to these services could still see HD.  But for the 20 or so percent who view over-the-air, well, thanks for playing.  Your HD set will do its best to upconvert 480.
There is (are) a slew of issues:
Is there a conflict of interest on the part of broadcasters which own or are owned by cable systems?  Does Comcast care if over-the-air viewers get 480i?  Heck, that should drive more viewers to cable for the quality.
Does anyone really care about over-the-air?  Maybe broadcast television becomes like AM – lower quality, poorer resolution and looking for a niche that draws viewers.
Does broadcast turn to the PCS guys to distribute their product on portable devices?  If so, who needs hi-def on a small screen?  But then, as devices grow in size, there’s that need for higher resolution – which 480 won’t be able to deliver.
And what about the future.  If you’re new to this issue, you’re probably new to 4K, too, which is Ultra HD.  The concept – which was viewable at 2012 NAB – provides for a standard that is 3840x2160 in resolution, or about 5 times (linear or over 20 times total) the resolution of 480 and twice that of 1080.  Like I said, there’s already 10 pounds of stuff in the bag, so unless the compression scheme includes instructions like, “Imagine a lake with a boat on it…” there’s no way we’ll ever see 4K over the air.  You can read more here.
There are plenty more – you can think through them.   They all spin a pretty sad story for a medium.  But do we really need over-the-air distribution?  Is it OK to forsake the 20 percent who view via OTA so that more people can get broadband?
Just follow the money.
·    The PCS and cellular lobbies are far stronger than broadcast
·    The NAB is living somewhere in the 1930’s.  I hear they’re considering an award to Vladimir Zworykin
·    Cable and broadcast integration and cross ownership means the broadcasters have less to lose.  In fact, if they take the bait, there may be lots of money for them
·    The demos of those 20 percent, well, pretty low importance
In its announcement, the FCC says that it, “…expects a healthy and vibrant broadcasting industry to thrive after the auction…”  which is a lot like telling a patient that, “you’ll be much better without that lousy heart and those kidneys.”
They held a workshop – Broadcaster LEARN.  You can check out the video on the NPRM for the auction here.
In the meantime, keep in mind that the average viewer has no idea this is happening. No thought that part of the value of HD is being rendered obsolete almost immediately after the FCC – and congress – mandated its implementation in the first place.  And they won’t figure it out until the resolution drops like a rock and they’re told by their local station that they need to subscribe to cable, telco, satellite, some paid service in order to get those lines of resolution.
*Note that currently, those channel numbers are carry-overs from analog days.  Your channel “7” may have been on the actual channel 7 (174-180mHz) but moved to another 6mHz block yet through channel virtualization, everyone

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Legacy of "Legacy"

We talk about it all the time – legacy products.  It’s supposed to mean gear that’s entrenched and because of that, hard to substitute for, even though it’s no longer in production.  That's not really it anymore.
So let’s find another word for “great products that are no longer being manufactured but need support because they’re being used every day.”  After all, in our world, that’s what the legacy products are.  In many cases, they are the core of a manufacturer’s business.  And, often, the reason they’re still in use is because they worked so well.  Sometimes the product survives the manufacturer.  We used Bell & Howell 70’s for years after the company and Chuck Percy were gone.   Great images and, if you needed to elbow your way out of a scary situation, the “Filmo” could take it.
Now, I understand the idea of not wanted to be married to a product forever.  I can speak firsthand about a closed-circuit system I designed then got a call some fifteen years later asking if I could fix a camera's focusing problem.  But, I didn’t launch a business on the product.  It was a one-off. 
On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of product X out there, manufactured 5, 10, or even 20 years ago.  They’re still working and sometimes still relied upon.  Should the manufacturer continue to support them?
The point here is twofold. First, the TTL (“time to legacy”, not time to live) is getting shorter and shorter.  Technology is changing so fast that great products get forced into the background, supplanted by newer and, possibly, better ones.  But the older ones worked and, often continue to work unless the manufacturer stopped supporting it.  Take an SD to HD upconverter.  Ones that work, work!  And one that’s 5 years old will probably cost a lot more to repair than to replace.
You have to ask the reasons for stopping support.  To me, they boil down to 
·    Products no longer interface with new technology.  Obvious example:  an analog cell phone.  A company could support it but no cell tower will recognize it so why bother?
·    Parts are no longer available.  That’s becoming more and more prevalent.  It extends from OEM to aftermarket items.  If you have a box that uses a Burr-Brown A/D converter from 10 years ago, good luck if that chip goes.
·    New products replacing the legacy units are so inexpensive that they render repair of the older gear futile or cost-ineffective.  Should Dell support a 20 pound, 15 year old “laptop?”
·    Cost to keep staff for support is exorbitant.  If your math tells you that you have 500 units out there and you figure ten percent are still really in use, do you continue to staff for those 50 units that might fail?
·    Bought out by another company for the name – a company that doesn’t realize that by not supporting the legacy products, they’re devaluing the very name they purchased. 
·    My favorite:  Because it forces you to buy the newer product.  I already wrote about this one, specifically T-Mobile and its refusal to support a phone’s software any longer than the manufacturer supports the hardware.  Year guarantee on the phone?  On day 367, if they upgrade software and your phone is rendered useless, too bad.  (Aside: of course your 2 year commitment remains in effect).
I’ve dealt with each of these and, in many cases it’s understandable.  But other times, not.  Should any company support their VCR’s from a few years back?  No?  Well, what about DVD players?  How about mini-discs?  (Actually, Sony still does).  Videotape – Type C, Beta, Digibeta?  For how long?  How ‘bout DAT.  (Call Panasonic and try to get a number for an authorized repair service… I dare you.  But then, trying to get an answer from Panasonic on anything is impossible.  And please don’t suggest the online chat.  What an experience that is.)
It’s interesting on the broadcast side.  A few years back, equipment was supported by the manufacturer just about forever.  Then came the letters and notices, ”…after 25 years of manufacture, XXX Company will discontinue its support of the TT5 and TT25AL transmitters in 24 months.  After that, support will not be available and parts will be kept on hand only until the current inventory is exhausted.”
Then the notifications began coming with less of a delay.  Twenty years, 15, 10.  So what’s the right length of time?  If I need support for a Sony stereo amplifier should I get it?  For how long?  If it goes bad, does it get to be a door stop?
Fortunately, the problem has created a new industry – the “not-necessarily-authorized-but-we-know-more-about-the-product-than-the-manufacturer-and-we-can-get-the-parts-and-fix-it” business.  I see a number of them – and often recommend some of the ones I’ve come across.  Folks that can out-do Panasonic, Sony, Denon, Tascam, JVC and many others.  They fill the void.  However, I’m finding that many of these folks can’t get parts, or the manual, or haven’t been able to train on the unit.  And that relegates the box to boat anchor status. 
I don’t like to throw stuff out there without having answers but, in this case, I can’t offer much:
·     If you can’t get factory support for your legacy product, ask them (are you ready?) “Do you remember anyone who worked there who may be able to service it?” 
·     If you get a notice of discontinuation of support, contact the company immediately and find out who the current support person is.  Establish some kind of relationship.
·     If not – and that’s usually the answer – you’re looking for a repair shop.  It may or may not be factory authorized.  With legacy products, factory-authorized doesn’t necessarily mean better service.
·     If you’re contemplating purchase of new equipment, look at the history of the company’s support of past legacy products.
·    Get a commitment from the manufacturer that they will support the product for (place time frame here based on your needs).  It’s important for continuity and workflow.  If you have to train personnel on new cameras every 12 months, it can eat up a lot of time.  There’s another reason this is important.  How does a company capitalize a piece of gear for longer than the time that it’s supported?  I’ll let the bean counters argue with the IRS on that one…but a number of stations are still writing down NTSC gear they bought just before the conversion to digital
·     Ask:  “What’s in development.”  “Should I be waiting for model D versus the current model C.”
Now, some of the above might not be worthwhile.  If you have one audio distribution amp, chances are, it's not worth the time to do all of the points.  If it fails, you may be out of luck.  But if you have 10 HD cameras using DVD for storage, you may want to do all of it.  Of course, you could choose to help the economy by junking everything the moment it breaks.  Oh, wait.  Workstations.  Interfaces.  One piece breaks and we have to replace it all.  Oops.
OK – gotta go. I just received a text.  I’m having problems with the tablet I bought this afternoon and the message says it goes out of warranty in an hour.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Trying to Pay a Compliment - When Marketing Blows up in your Face

I’m not sure how on-topic this is but, from my standpoint, it’s spot on.
Seems Seven Eleven created what I think is a pretty neat traffic generator.  This morning, they offered free coffee for coming in to “vote”.  Voting was done by selecting either an “Obama” (blue) cup or a “Romney” (red) cup.  
I tried it.  I have to tell you, at this particular outlet, it was a terrific customer experience.  Greeted when I entered, seven or eight different types of coffee brewed, hot, and waiting, lids and every associated item in place and available.
Then, politely asking what the charge was, I was told, “No. No. No.  It’s free.  Thanks for coming in.”  Then one of the folks asked if I wanted a sample of their breakfast sandwich.   I passed, but there was a blueberry muffin on the counter that seemed to have an aura around it.  I, of course, bought it.
Ate the muffin, drank the coffee while walking home.  I have to say both were great.  All around, one fine, well-built promotion.
At home, finishing the coffee, I looked at the side of the cup.  “Satisfaction Guaranteed! 1-800-255-0711.”
Cool!  I thought, “I’m gonna give them a call and tell them what a neat promotion they’re onto.”
It was at that point that all of the good will generated during my visit went down the tubes.  I mean from, “Wow!” to “Yuck!” in less than thirty seconds.  Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
·     They put you through the “our menu options have changed…” lie.
·     They use the same number for employees and customers…you have to press 1 to tell them you’re a customer.  Are you kidding?
·     The first prompt as a customer is, “If you are calling in regard to funds being held by your bank…”  Are you kidding me?  I understand that this could be important.  But it’s an important negative that needs to be tucked somewhere else.  Is that the first thing you want every customer calling to think about - that Seven Eleven could bring about an issue with funds being held by their bank?
·     When you finally tree your way through to info about leaving a comment, you hope for a live person.  But, just in case, you start rehearsing your message in case there’s a beep.  Surprise!  After you get through the tree and listen to the message, you’re sent to the website for any comments.  The same is true for complaints
·     As you would guess – it doesn’t mention that on the cup.  In fact, the web address isn’t even given on the cup
Ah!  More smart marketing and ops guys/women (or a combination thereof) who don’t talk to one another.
Now, somewhere out there is/are the brains behind this.  So to you, let me just say, kudos for the promotion.  Now – take a hike!  You blew it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Hey, Guys, the Record's Stuck

Seems Julius Genachowski's FCC is playing the same song and now the record's stuck.  [The CD's skipping; the file's stuck in a nested loop.]
The title is broadband and the commission continues to yodel about the lack of penetration.  They're claiming less than 30 percent of Americans have access to their definition of broadband, 100Mbps.
In their 706 Report to Congress they presented this number as the goal and then lamented (is that a legal term?) that we're not there.
Interesting, though, that the report is totally out of date.  Current estimates put availability at approximately 80 percent of households.  That doesn't mean that 80 percent want/will sign up for such data rates.  If we look at growth of other technologies - television set penetration, color TV, CD, cable, and so on, we'll see that the growth curve for home data connections is much steeper than preceding technologies. 
It's important to remember that use of the Internet builds on many of these other technologies.  The integration of DOCSIS 3.0 by cable contributes immensely to the ability to deliver 100Mbps - or more - and that penetration continues to grow, approaching maturity.
Add to that the number of wireless user and you can get blown away by total usage, regardless of speed.
But back to that 100Mbps, a few comments:
  • Who decided that 100Mbps is the goal? 
  • How many people want it?
  • If 100Mbps is the Chevy Volt of data, why is the commission working so hard to secure this level of access for everyone?
  • What part does diversification play in the commission's goal?  By that I mean, 100Mbps can replace over-the-air television and, consequently, dilute the value of companies like Disney, Comcast/NBC Universal, and similar organizations?
  • On the coattails of the comment directly above, how hard is the commission looking at the vertical and horizontal integration of existing operations, e.g., Comcast/NBC/Universal
  • Is it reasonable for the commission to be able to divert funds - on their own, with no oversight from congress - to support the buildout of 100Mbps? 
  • We're all paying into the fund on every telephone bill.  What do we have to show for it?
  • The marketplace was responsible for most of the growth of every other technological advance.  Why does the government need to be involved?  Demand trumps technology every time.
  • US prices for data rates are, on the whole, from 25% to 100% higher than those in other countries.  Competition will help.  Government builds will not.
Here's an excerpt from the home page of the FCC's "Connecting America" portion of  Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society – for all Americans. For that reason, the FCC has adopted comprehensive reforms of its Universal Service Fund (USF) and Intercarrier Compensation (ICC) systems to accelerate broadband build-out to the 18 million Americans living in rural areas who currently have no access to robust broadband infrastructure. This reform will expand the benefits of high-speed Internet to millions of consumers in every part of the country by transforming the existing USF into a new Connect America Fund (CAF) focused on broadband.
Consumers everywhere – both urban and rural – will benefit. Reform will not only drive economic growth in rural America, but will expand the online marketplace nationwide, creating jobs and businesses opportunities across the country.
Commissioner Ajit Pai summed it up well:  “If we are willing to set an objective with no intent of reaching it, then I suppose that this is not a problem, but if we believe instead that data should drive our decisions - not vice versa - then section 706(b) can never be a reliable authority for implementing good policy since we will eventually be forced to concede once again that broadband is being deployed in a timely and reasonable fashion.”  A little gobbledegoop but you get it.
So, I ask the commission - and congress - to get the facts straight.  Then, give a second thought to spending more money, money which really should have congress' approval, for expansion of this level of broadband.
Pick up the tone arm and move the stylus, flick the CD player with your finger, or move farther down the file...but stop trying to provide something ahead of the marketplace.  You'll save time, unintended consequences, money and angst.  And there's nothing better than saved angst.