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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.