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News Archive: November 2010

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11/24/10 - Dear Santa: Please Bring Sanity [link to this story]

I'm not a big fan of the consumptive nature of the "holiday season," though I do love me some reading. One of the latest on my wish list is Tim Wu's new tome, The Master Switch. The book itself examines the rise of "information empires" within U.S. communications history, ranging from radio to the Internet.

Wu occupies an interesting place in the media policymaking world: he's not been afraid to speak his mind, and he's also remained independent enough to look at our information environment from a strategic perspective, instead of getting embroiled in tactical distractions.

I think the "Constitutional option" that Wu suggests to break up the increasingly centralized control of our communications infrastructure is truly radical. However, in a recent Wall Street Journal article Wu makes a compelling argument that we've already reached the point of "information monopolies," especially online and, despite whatever the latest policy-of-the-month skirmish might be, some radical action is necessary.

Info-monopolies tend to be good-to-great in the short term and bad-to-terrible in the long term. For a time, firms deliver great conveniences, powerful efficiencies and dazzling innovations. That's why a young monopoly is often linked to a medium's golden age....The downside shows up later, as the monopolist ages and the will to innovate is replaced by mere will to power....The costs of the monopoly are mostly borne by entrepreneurs and innovators. Over the long run, the consequences afflict the public in more subtle ways, as what were once highly dynamic parts of the economy begin to stagnate.

With regard to the Internet, things are "still relatively young, and we remain in the golden age of these monopolists. We can also take comfort from the fact that most of the Internet's giants profess an awareness of their awesome powers and some sense of attendant duty to the public. Perhaps if we're vigilant, we can prolong the benign phase of their rule. But let's not pretend that we live in anything but an age of monopolies."

Now, if only Santa can can deliver on the necessary enlightenment and vigilance.

11/17/10 - Politics-Based Policy, or Policy-Based Politics? [link to this story]

If you haven't yet read Harold Feld's humorous critique on the handling of network neutrality as a "political issue" during the recent elections, it's worth the time.

Harold calls out two functional weaknesses in what constitutes the public interest constituency in D.C.: the desire to score quick political points with no long-term value and the penchant to react in a knee-jerk fashion when the drive to score backfires.

Using the example of a closing-days "network neutrality pledge" ginned up by a progressive blog, and the insidious echo-chamber effect of Twitter, Harold wonders if folks are losing track of the substance behind important policy issues such as network neutrality in exchange for symbolic sniping.

I expected the matter would finally die – until someone with an actual position in DC Policyland asked me in all seriousness whether I thought the election results were a referendum on net neutrality. At which point I decided that DC has its collective head thoroughly up its rectum that there is simply no use fighting this anymore....Hey, when Rome, do as the Romans. When in Policyland, blog and hope you get retweeted.

On this specific issue, Matthew Lasar is not hopeful. The strategy to outlaw data discrimination needs a serious overhaul.

11/11/10 - The Life and Times of Radio Engineering [link to this story]

Paul Thurst's blog, Engineering Radio, is great new addition to the interwebs. Thurst is a working broadcast engineer. From personal experience, I've found that engineers are typically the most intelligent, grounded (no pun intended) and and eccentric folks at any radio station.

Today, many stations don't even have their own engineers, and those still employed in the business often find themselves busting tail working for multiple employers, multiple stations, and without much respect.

I've never understood the latter: most radio station management and air talent are pretty clueless technologically, except for memorizing which buttons they need to push in the studio. If something goes awry, it's a "crisis" - for which the engineer has to play counselor, diplomat, and technician. Broadcast engineers are the unseen and unheard heart of any radio station - without them, there would be dead air (or static).

I first got interested in Engineering Radio for the tales told about traveling to difficult transmitter sites, and the tricky and sometimes quirky problems Paul's faced in the past. For the geeks, there's posts about transmitters and antenna systems - how they work in the real world and how to keep them happy (gear needs love, too).

Unlike many radio engineers I've known, Paul also knows how to communicate. His blog is both funny and informative.

Lately, Engineering Radio's gotten quite critical of the notion that HD Radio is the medium's salvation. He's written posts debunking proponents' claims that the technology is still in "growth mode"; questioned the proprietary nature of iBiquity's system and, most recently, lampooned the company's announcement of HD's newest feature: "image support." That's just a fancy way of saying "radio with still pictures."

That particular concept is nothing new: shortwave pirates often begin and end broadcasts with slow-scan television images. Just because the resolution of still images and the speed with which they are broadcast will be higher in HD doesn't make the feature all that revolutionary.

One thing most critics of HD Radio fail to take into consideration is the big-picture perspective of the technology in our 21st century media environment. The policy and marketplace development of HD Radio is not a story of evil people doing stupid things, or stupid people doing evil things: characterizing the saga in such a manner fails to indict the system of policymaking which ignorantly allowed the radio industry to facilitate its self-immolation.

This process began with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which fundamentally transformed the radio industry, giving a minority of players an inordinate amount of political and economic leverage to promulgate a digital audio broadcast standard simply not capable of competing in a convergent media environment.

The fight for - and incipient failure of - HD Radio in the United States will most likely be the lasting legacy of a wrongheaded law which unleashed consolidation and cost-cutting, turning radio away from its traditional strengths of localism and diversity, and transforming it into what is now a hollow husk of a mass medium.

The HD Radio policy proceeding also represents the capstone in a long history of the FCC ignoring or avoiding substantive questions of who and what represents ‘the public interest,” and clearly illustrates the agency’s move away from basing policy on firm technical information toward purely economic rationales.

Having more sites like Engineering Radio online can only help to thicken the very justifiable criticism of HD Radio; it's easy to dismiss hyperbole, but less so to ignore facts and real-world observations compellingly documented by people who understand how the system actually works.

11/4/10 - Digital Radio Mondiale Proponents Organize in U.S. [link to this story]

A new web site has been launched to provide information on the idea of promulgating the use of Digital Radio Mondiale in North America.

The site grew out of a four-year old mailing list which originally began as a place for listeners to post logs of DRM signals. Notably, the site contains a bibliography of journal articles written about the technology.

So far the group's only superficially engaged in the change-process through comments on the site, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

Although Digital Radio Mondiale - the newest of the three most prominent digital audio broadcast standards - is open source, covers all three broadcast bands, and provides the best bandwidth-for-performance efficiency improvement to the medium of radio, it is unlikely to find ready acceptance in the United States.

HD Radio - the U.S.' chosen DAB standard - is floundering. By design, the technology was unlikely to gain purchase in the marketplace, and this is painfully occurring. The most recent trends in digital media consumption point to a bleak future for HD.

Unfortunately, it'll take probably another ten years before the industry comes to grips with the fact that they bet on a losing horse, and the FCC's not independent-minded enough to readily explore all-digital alternatives to its blessed hybrid technology.

By that time, it'll be an open question as to whether radio as we've known it can maintain meaningfulness in a convergent media environment.