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News Archive: July 2007

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7/20/07 - Good Cop/Bad Cop: The NAB and Satellite Radio [link to this story]

Last month, a consultant engineer hired by the National Association of Broadcasters filed comments with the FCC in opposition to the proposed merger of the Sirius and XM satellite radio networks. These comments stressed the unique transmission and reception infrastructure of each satellite system and pronounced them inherently incompatible. The consultant, Dennis Wallace, asserts (among other things) that the variation in the orbital paths of XM and Sirius satellites, combined with a host of differences involving how the networks encode and compress their digital signals for broadcast, makes each company's distribution infrastructure nearly impossible to consolidate without "significant disruption" to satellite radio service more generally.

This assertion is belied by two fundamental facts. The first is that XM and Sirius do not serve their subscribers primarily via satellite; instead they use a network of ground-based repeater-transmitters. In most cases, XM/Sirius listeners are not listening to signals directly from space, but instead to a signal bounced from the ground to space and back down again, then rebroadcast from gear bolted to some rented space on a cell phone tower nearby. It doesn't matter what the difference in XM and Sirius satellites' orbital paths are - so long as one satellite can "see" the United States (and XM's constellation is in geostationary orbit), the repeaters will be served, and hence the listeners.

The second fact is that interoperable XM/Sirius satellite radio receivers already exist, and may be more widespread than we realize. In testimony to the House Judiciary Committee's Antitrust Task Force earlier this year, Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin told lawmakers that the companies had already developed an interoperable receiver, but have not mass-produced it because there was no market incentive to do so. In this sense, XM/Sirius are holding interoperability hostage as part of the merger negotiation process. Outside the Beltway, some have suggested that making an existing XM or Sirius receiver interoperable might not require much more than a tweak to its firmware.

What we have here is a case of the NAB playing fast and loose with technicalities in order to obfuscate the subject at hand. It was a strategy successfully executed to hamstring the creation of LPFM.

Even so, sometimes even the bad guys f*ck up and do some good: earlier this week the NAB filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC for details on how it is handling its investigation into XM and Sirius' willful and repeated use of overpowered and/or unlicensed terrestrial repeater-stations. The NAB claims that XM and Sirius' unlawful behavior was condoned at the "executive and senior level," and that the public interest compels disclosure of the FCC's progress on the case. While the NAB has the right to harp on the fact that XM and Sirius were the proprietors of was essentially the largest pirate radio network in broadcast history, it's disappointing to see that being raised as a sideshow to the merger issue.

Personally, I'm quite conflicted on the prospect of a satellite radio merger. I don't like the idea of a single company dominating any market, but the nature of satellite radio, based on the amount of investment required to make it work, also exhibits tendencies toward natural monopoly. Neither company has turned a profit and won't for the foreseeable future, so something's gotta give. A critical condition for any merger will be who gets to keep what chunks of satellite spectrum, and whether some of it might be better repurposed to serve the public interest, since it's clear neither company can do that on its own.

7/15/07 - HD Datacasting Begins In Earnest [link to this story]

Clear Channel recently announced it's started broadcasting traffic data information on 48 HD Radio-equipped stations around the country. It's the first use of a digital radio signal for the delivery of content wholly separate from main program audio; the "Total Traffic Network" is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Clear Channel. It's unclear how this service will compete with Clear Channel's datacasting partnership with Microsoft, which also seeks to provide traffic information.

How does it work? That's not quite clear: Clear Channel's press release notes that Total Traffic information will require "specially equipped receivers available by the end of this year"; otherwise you need a portable GPS unit and an annual ~$60 subscription to get access, or a new car from BMW or Mini with built-in GPS onboard.

As for the content itself, the HD content of Total Traffic appears to replicate information already delivered via preexisting analog-based digital data subcarrier transmission systems (which also require specially equipped receivers to utilize). Thus while the launch of commercial data delivery via HD is notable, the actual data delivered does not represent any great leap forward.

7/10/07 - Collage Expansion Underway [link to this story]

I just processed a backlog of new collage-files, featuring both consumer collage and Truthful Translations. The media collage section of the site more generally is undergoing an expansion and overhaul right now, as I prepare to use it for teaching purposes in the fall. If anyone has good suggestions of online, accessible, enjoyable tutelage to be found explaining the intersection of appropriation and art, the potentials of fair use, etc. please drop a line.

In related news, a/v mixmaster rx has declared his intent to run for president in 2008, and has already launched a series of campaign spots detailing his impressive yet relaxable agenda.

Updates to the site will continue to be sporadic during the rest of the summer as I crunch through preliminary exams and leave the country for a spell.