Guerrilla DTV

With its transmitting antenna mounted nearly 1000 feet above sea level, KYES-DT’s channel 22 HDTV signal covers the 310,000 households in its coverage area quite well; even though the station’s TTC 100 watt analog transmitter and K-Tec digital exciter are only pumping out 20 watts ERP.
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With its transmitting antenna mounted nearly 1000 feet above sea level, KYES-DT’s channel 22 HDTV signal covers the 310,000 households in its coverage area quite well; even though the station’s TTC 100 watt analog transmitter and K-Tec digital exciter are only pumping out 20 watts ERP.

Of course, about 950 feet of the antenna’s height is being provided by the hillside it sits on. Meanwhile, the KYES-DT antenna is mounted on a 30-foot pole, which itself sits on top of Jeremy Lansman’s house on the hillside. Along with his wife Carol Schatz, Lansman is one half of the Mom-and-Pop team that owns KYES-DT and its analog UPN affiliate in Anchorage, KYES-T

“The antenna is actually an old LPTV antenna cut for channel 18, but with a bit of prepping in my backyard, I got it working on channel 22,” Lansman tells DigitalTV. “All of the equipment that feeds it, I got second hand on eBay. I then tweaked them all until the combination produces a pristine HDTV picture over the air.”

Never one to fret about appearances, Jeremy Lansman has secured KYES-DT’s 30-foot “tower” with four ropes. That’s right: nylon ropes: KYES-DT is probably the only 8-VSB station in existence whose broadcast day could be cut short by a sharp-toothed squirrel.

Not Your NAB 2005-Style 8-VSB Installation

Welcome to Guerrilla DTV; twine-and-baling-wire engineering reminiscent of the earliest days of analog radio when all that mattered was that you got the signal to air, not how. It’s an approach that defies the convention of modern “must spend millions” HDTV deployment; an approach that resulted in DTV arriving in Alaska on August 25, 2003. Unfortunately, Guerrilla DTV is also an approach that could run afoul of the FCC’s DTV rollout rules, because KYES-DT’s program feed does not include a PSIP (Program and System Information Protocol, a.k.a. ATSC A/65B) data stream.

More on that later: Let’s get back to the basics of Guerilla DTV, or how KYES-DT got to air for less than the cost of a used Chevy. “A few years ago, while in the midst of writing the FCC to request another extension on my DTV license, it dawned on me that if I got something on air, I wouldn’t have to ask,” says Lansman. Lacking the budget to buy new equipment outright -- “financially, this [KYES-DT] is a hobby station,” he says -- Jeremy Lansman logged onto eBay to find what he needed.

A few thousand dollars later, he had purchased the K-Tec digital exciter, a Terayon stream multiplexer, and a Comstream Radyne TUI-10. “Having a very old Television Technology Corporation [TTC] XL-100 UHF translator, I set about converting it into a 15 watt DTV transmitter,” Lansman says. “K-Tec later told me that the exciter I bought was the prototype.”

Jeremy Lansman connected these components plus a few other “odds and ends” altogether, then fed the K-Tec exciter’s 8-VSB output into a small antenna connected to the exciter’s channel 6 output. Nearby sat a Samsung set-top box that he’d bought for $100—“retail!”—at the local Best Buy. “They told me the set-top box didn’t work,” Lansman says. “Well, of course it didn’t: No 8-VSB stations were on the air! But when fed an 8-VSB signal, the box did work: The test pattern that I was sending through the 8-VSB transmitter came up pristine and clean through the Samsung box on a connected TV set.”

From then to now, this self-described “DTV Pioneer” has been beaming both HD video and a mix of audio channels to the Anchorage area on channel 22. Initially, KYES-DT relayed Mark Cuban’s HDNET, but when Cuban took HDNET off-air, Lansman began relaying the cable network Wealth-TV instead. Today, KYES-DT offers Wealth-TV and KYES-5’s analog feed using a Lucent/Aastra/Harris four channel SDI encoder acquired on eBay (naturally), and six channels of audio; one of which is the FM STL feed of Anchorage’s KUDO-AM. “KYES-DT is still one of only two 8-VSB stations in the Anchorage market, and the only one hosting an HD signal,” Lansman says proudly.

Running the FCC Regulatory Gauntlet

As mentioned earlier, the one thing that KYES-DT fails to transmit is a PSIP data stream. Without the PSIP feed, the handful of DTV viewers in Anchorage have to tune manually for KYES-DT’s signal, and refer to www.kyes.com/dtv on the Web to find out what’s on. This is because “the 8-VSB PSIP feed is what tells a DTV receiver what to do with the incoming signal,” says Bob Rast, president of the PSIP software maker Linx Pro Products. “It also provides data for the channel’s Electronic Program Guide (EPG), so that the viewer can see what’s on, and what’s coming up.”

Jeremy Lansman knows that providing PSIP is a requirement of his FCC DTV license, as outlined in the FCC Report & Order that dictates the current U.S. transition to digital TV. He also knows how much it will cost KYES-DT to implement PSIP; based on a November 10, 2004 price quote from Harris Corporation that Lansman just submitted to the FCC.

In that quotation, Harris told KYES that it would cost $32,632.77 to install the hardware and software to put PSIP data into KYES-DT’s over-the-air signal. Given that Lansman only paid “less than $5,000” to get his garage-based DTV station on air “after the gods of eBay smiled on me,” he isn’t intending to take Harris up on their offer. “Poo on forced PSIP,” says Lansman. “I’ll buy it when I see it on eBay for under $200.”

Pleading for Financial Hardship Relief to the FCC
Mindful of his legal obligations, Jeremy Lansman recently filed a “Waiver of Digital Television Rules” request to the FCC’s Mass Media Bureau for KYES’s holding company, Fireweed Communications LLC (which he and his wife own). In this waiver request -- the one to which the $32,632.77 Harris quotation was attached -- “Fireweed is seeking to delay implementation of KYES-DT PSIP transmissions until such time as PSIP is affordable. We do expect bargain PSIP software in the future. Meanwhile, we have not met a receiver that cannot received KYYES-DT [sic] via the DVB-SI presently broadcast.” In the same waiver request, Fireweed asks to be exempted from the FCC’s DTV requirements for children’s educational and informational programming, and closed captioning.

Although Lansman puts forward a number of arguments to support Fireweed’s waiver request, his final justification is the FCC’s willingness to grant rule exemptions for stations experiencing financial hardship. “Fireweed can clearly demonstrate that the company continues to be in financial distress,” the waiver request says. “Nevertheless, in spite of financial limitations, Fireweed, acting in good faith, has embraced our mandate transition to digital TV by broadcasting HD and other digital program material not otherwise available to Alaskans.”

Lansman’s Gamble

The question is whether the FCC will buy Jeremy Lansman’s arguments or not. Certainly there is precedent for the FCC giving KYES a break; according to the waiver request, “Fireweed... received a waiver of FY 2003 regulatory fees [from the FCC], and has again requested relief for FY 2004.” The Commission is hardly likely to want to force a DTV broadcaster off-air;
even one who, as Lansman admits, “has no viewers."

On the other hand, KYES’ opposition to PSIP is causing head-scratching throughout the U.S. broadcast industry. “This is the first that I’ve ever heard of a station protesting the PSIP requirement, which the NAB supports,” says Dennis Wharton, the NAB’s senior vice president. “Still, we are very sympathetic to KYES’ waiver request and hope that the FCC will consider it.”

Meanwhile, despite Lansman’s assertion that all kinds of DTV receivers can pick up KYES-DT, Triveni Digital product manager Rich Chernock says that’s not the point. “If a DTV broadcaster isn’t sending out dynamic PSIP, they are missing the opportunity to provide better service to their viewers and compete on even the most basic features such as providing EPG information”
“Let’s say that KYES succeeds in getting a PSIP waiver, but its competitors send out PSIP information which is accurate and compelling,” says Chris Lennon, Harris Automation’s program manager. “Viewers using EPGs will know what’s on the competition, but will have to channel-flip to KYES-DT to see what’s on. If the competition provides them with all kinds of rich data on their EPGs, which are they likely to tune to: KYES-DT, or the competition?”

Not surprisingly, the FCC refused to comment on Lansman’s waiver request while it is being considered. However, given the fact that KYES-DT truly is a “DTV Pioneer” in an underserved area, it seems inconceivable that the Commission won’t grant Fireweed some sort of exemption.

The nature of this exemption -- how long or how short; conditional or open-ended -- is what other small U.S. broadcasters will be waiting to see. Small wonder: if KYES-DT can catch a break on PSIP, children’s programming, and closed captioning, other small TV broadcasters might as well.

As a result, although KYES-DT may have no regular viewers, it could still make DTV history in the United States. It all depends on whether the FCC chooses to humor Guerrilla DTV, or nip it in the bud.