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Chriss Scherer Scherer has been the editor of Radio magazine since 1997. His experience in radio includes work as chief engineer at stations in Cleveland (WMMS-FM, WHK-AM, WZJM-FM, WJMO-AM...more

Archive of the FCC/Regulatory Category

Faked EAS Tones — Really a Big Deal?

You have heard about the Arco ads that have a pseudo-faked alert theme in them, which includes an altered EAS header. (If not, read the story here.) As is usually the case with anything even slightly emergency notification related, a small group of broadcasters stands up to make a mountain out of the mole hill.

First, listen to the spot. There’s a link to the audio in the article reference above. You’ll hear the duck-squawk-like tones at the beginning and inclusion of the phrase, “This is only a test.” The first question that is raised is if this radio spot violates FCC rules to transmit a fake emergency alert message.

This was fueled by a handful of EAS decoders that were able to decode the altered header, which happens to include corrupt data that says it’s a required weekly test (RWT) for several counties around Tampa, FL. Not all decoders reacted to it. Those encoders that did reacted like they should with an RWT: They only logged it.

Some stations were concerned about the erroneous header without a message. I agree with the due diligence to determine the nature of the incomplete message. It could have easily been indicative of a problem with the EAS decoder. But it was not.

So what’s the appropriate action? Some in the small group of emergency alerting watchers are calling for FCC fines and deliberate effort to teach station owners and the marketing world a lesson.

Some say issue fines. Who should be fined? The station aired a spot. Granted, the production effort of the spot was a poor idea, but investigation of the faked header shows it is not an actual or even valid alert header. The stations should notify the client that this was a bad idea. The client can notify the ad agency that created the spot. The FCC can’t fine the ad agency for creating the spot, and broadcasters insisting the FCC fine other broadcasters for accepting and airing ad materials opens the door to even bigger issues.

Some say that broadcasters should create a suitable faked EAS-like audio file for media outlets to use when needed. This was compared to using a phone number starting with 555. Why would anyone promote using a faked signal? That’s just a bad idea no matter how you look at it. The reality is that faked emergency alert tones will be used from time to time. Rather than make it easier for faked tones to be used — and condition the public to ignore them more than they already do — inform those who made the mistake now. Everyone knows not to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. They should also know not to use real EAS headers in spots and promos.

In the end, this was really a harmless action. Rather than use it as a witch hunt, use the opportunity to inform those who are less familiar with FCC rules (and apparently some common sense).

Americans Are Oblivious to Broadband Speeds

The headline from a June 1, 2010 FCC press release:
“FCC Survey Finds 4 out of 5 Americans Don’t Know Their Broadband Speeds”

Whoa! Really? And you know what else? 4 out of 5 Americans probably don’t care either.

More from the FCC press release:

“The Federal Communications Commission released the results of a survey on the consumer broadband experience. The survey found that 80 percent of broadband users in the United States do not know the speed of their broadband connection.”

Well, that’s good to know, right?

“FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, ‘Speed matters. The more broadband subscribers know about what speeds they need and what speeds they get, the more they can make the market work and push faster speeds over broadband networks.’”

I agree that speed matters, but is it really that critical for Mabel and Homer to know they have 720kb/s or 1.4Mb/s download capability? There are lots of technical details consumers don’t know or really need to know. They just want it to work.

And no matter how well something is explained, it often makes no sense in the end. The short answer is to simply say, “You need to pay a little more each month and step up to the next level of speed.

There is one benefit to the study. The FCC wants to verify that advertised connection speeds are actually being delivered. I typically lean towards buyer beware, but this is a case where Mabel and Homer will likely never verify their Internet connection speeds.

Still, are Mabel and Homer depending on a lightning-fast connection in the first place?

This is all part of the FCC’s efforts to push broadband improvements. Sure, let’s improve the broadband infrastructure for everyone. It’s the opening headline that made me laugh.

But on the serious side, the FCC looking for 10,000 volunteers to participate in a study to measure home broadband speed in the U.S. Specialized hardware will be installed in the homes of volunteers to measure the performance of all the country’s major Internet service providers across geographic regions and service tiers. The FCC is partnering with SamKnows Limited in this effort, the same firm that successfully conducted a similar test in the United Kingdom. A Public Notice asking for comment on the test plan was released in April 2010 and can be found at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-10-670A1.pdf.

Anyone can register as a volunteer for this national test at www.TestMyISP.com. Volunteers will be able to track the performance of their own broadband service, as well as providing valuable data for the FCC, Internet service providers, and the public at large.

Getting technical at the FCC

In December 2009, the “FCC Commissioners Technical Resource Act” (Senate bill 2881) was introduced. The bill was introduced by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Mark Warner (D-VA) and was in direct agreement with one of the SBE’s legislative goals: “To promote the maintenance or increase of technical expertise within the FCC to ensure that decision making by the FCC is based on technical investigation, studies and evaluation rather than political expenditures.”

In mid-March, Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA) introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to S.2881, which would authorize an engineering staff person for each of the five FCC commissioners. With a House bill now introduced, the legislation can move through the committee process of both chambers of Congress.

McNerney’s introduction of the bill comes after representatives of the Society of Broadcast Engineers met with his legislative staff in Washington the week prior. SBE’s Government Relations Committee Chairman Barry Thomas, CPBE CBNT, and General Counsel Chris Imlay visited offices of several members of the House to garner support for a companion to the Senate bill.

Now that the issue is in front of both houses of Congress, it’s time for broadcasters and broadcast engineers to speak up. Now is the time to contact your U.S. Representative and urge him or her to join Rep. McNerney as a co-sponsor or at least support HR.4809.

Contact information for U.S. Representatives: www.house.gov/zip/ZIP2Rep.html

And also contact your U.S. Senators to urge their support for S.2881. Contact information for U.S. Senators: www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

A National EAS Test?

The FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking to modify the rules and establisha method for an national EAS test has been issued. Do we need a national test? If we are going to keep the EAS as it is, a national test is a good idea. Such a test has never been conducted.

The recent EAN test in Alaska showed that the system seems to work, at least in that state. If the system were ever needed across the country, would it work as well?

It seems the FCC is still focused on the daisy-chain idea behind EAS, however. I know many plans kept this idea in place from EBS, but it’s an outdated idea and should be replaced if it’s still being used. That’s another issue than what the NPRM seeks, but it is worth noting in comments that the daisy chain should not be perpetuated.

Because the FCC sees broadcast as such a major part of the EAN, it’s important for stations to express their views on how such a test should be implemented.

Congress Tries to Tackle TV Loudness

Perhaps you saw the news that Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) has introduced a bill (H.R. 1084) to try to control the loudness of ads on TV. What a great idea. Her bill has passed in the House and is on its way to the Senate (S.2847).

The House version has been kicked around for some time. You may have heard it called the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act.

I reread the legislation because I was concerned that it would be phrased to address the maximum level and not loudness. We all know that loudness and level are different. (Level refers to a maximum peak; loudness refers to an average energy level.) Fortunately, the House version refers to loudness.

It’s unfortunate that legislation will likely be passed to address this. The audio in a TV signal (oh, wait; the TV guys call it sound) has always been an afterthought. If the audio meter moves, all is well. Who cares what it sounds like? (You should hear the locally inserted ads on my cable provider. Ouch!)

Of course radio will probably never have this problem. Many stations squish all the dynamic range down to less than 1dB. Nothing has a chance to be too loud.

Something Sticky for HD Radio Multicast

You have seen by now that some radio groups are being creative with the program sources for their HD Radio multicast streams. When HD Radio first took to the air, many stations created a jukebox player to feed the multicast stream. While that creates a placeholder and puts a niche format on the air, listeners rarely just want a jukebox for an extended time.

In some cases, FM stations will multicast an AM sister station’s audio. It at least provides a cleaner version of an existing program.

So why not take this a step further? Some groups are filling their multicast channels with signals from other markets. One example: Viacom’s KTWV-FM in Los Angeles has been using the feed from its country station in San Bernardino (KFRG).

This does not sit well with a KTWV competitor in LA. That competitor — Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters — has asked the FCC for a ruling to declare that Viacom’s arrangement violates the FCC’s multiple ownership rules and its FM allocation scheme.

The FCC has already ruled to prevent an owner from beefing up his station count to get around ownership limits. An explanation from the Commlaw Blog from Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth summarizes this well:

The Commission held that if a licensee (call it Licensee A) of a station in a market were to broker a multicast stream from another licensee’s station in the same market, that brokered stream would count towards the local radio ownership cap for Licensee A. This would prevent a maxed-out licensee — such as Viacom in this instance — from programming using another licensee’s in-market multicast channels.

It seems the Mt. Wilson claim is pushing the intent of the rules too far. Viacom already owns all the stations in question.

A better argument is that the Viacom is in essence using the LA signal as a full-power booster for the San Bernardino signal, and Mt. Wilson makes this claim as well. Wilson wants this option closed so no group owner will essentially simulcast an out-of-market stream via a multicast channel.

What will happen? Potentially another roadblock for the HD Radio rollout.

Shortened license renewal?

That’s what FCC Acting Chairman Michael Copps wants.

In an address during the Free Press Summit on May 14, Copps dropped something of a bomb on broadcasters when he said that he wants to reform the license renewal process. From his speech:

If old media is going to be with us a while still, what implications does this have for us? It means we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process. Since we still need broadcasters to contribute to the democratic dialogue, we need clear standards that can be fairly but vigorously enforced. It is time to say good-bye to postcard renewal every eight years and hello to license renewals every three years with some public interest teeth.

I understand that many thoughtful people are ready to give up on the public interest. They would rather just impose a spectrum fee on broadcasters and be done with it. I’m not ready to throw in the towel. The public interest standard is like a grand old theater that has been badly neglected over the years. The structure is sound, and with a little imagination and a lot of hard work we can make it a showplace once again.

I’m all for ensuring the public interest is met by broadcasters. There are limited licenses, so the spectrum is valuable. It should be treated like a valuable resource. However, juke box radio stations thrive according to ratings, so there is obviously some public interest being shown.

I get the feeling that Copps has the view that every consumer is actively involved in every detail of social and political events, and that radio should be just as active in covering the details. There are some listeners who want that, but it seems obvious that most listeners are happy to turn on the radio and hear something akin to what is already available. (What each market has may not be perfect, I know.)

Public interest is always a compromise. Public appeal is the counterbalance.

So Copps wants to end the postcard renewal and make it a process with some teeth. I can imagine that will involve much more paperwork. And if it’s shortened to three years, more paperwork more often.

Perhaps Copps will get his wish. I think most stations could handle increased filing requirements. The question is, can the FCC handle the new workload of reviewing and granting the revised renewal application process in a timely and efficient manner?

Another delay for DTV

Feb 17? Not necessarily. Jun 12? Definitely. Really. For sure this time.

The analog shutoff has been promoted as being Feb 17 for years now, yet some people are still in the dark about it apparently.

I think a big part of it is that Congress and the FCC didn’t want to look like the bad guys when Ethel and Homer lost their TV signals. Now the shutoff date is up to the station. Let the station take the blame.

Deadlines are created for a reason. Yes, the coupon program had some problems. Yes, many people don’t pay attention to the daily notices that they might lose their TV signals. Most markets held soft tests to see who might be affected. Many SBE chapters worked phone banks to answer questions about the transition.

Meanwhile, the companies that bought the 700MHz spectrum that will be freed are still waiting to get access to it.

Feb 17 should have been left in place.

Help Wanted: Honest FCC Commissioner

We already knew that there were problems at the FCC. Now, some members of Congress have affirmed that belief. Read about it here:

radiomagonline.com/currents/house-report-investigates-fcc-problems-martin-1210/

Unfortunately, it is likely that little will be done. Once Obama is sworn in, a the commission will have a new chairman.

Who’s Next at the FCC?

With a new president comes new legal appointments. It’s already expected that Kevin Martin, a Republican, will be stepping out when Obama is sworn in. The two sitting Democrat commissioners are Adelstein and Copps. Which one of them could be appointed to be the chairman?

If I had to pick one, it would be Adelstein. Based on his comments and history at the FCC I think he has a better record of being broadcaster friendly.

Copps seems to have good intentions, but his actions always consider the broadcaster second or third. While I agree that public interest should be served, Copps seems to have an unrealistic view of what the public really wants.

I also wonder what other changes will be made at the FCC.

We’ll know soon enough.

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