It's Not the Frequencies, Stupid

You might not have noticed that leeches and maggots have been in federal government news recently. Yes, this month's rant is about Hurricane Katrina and DTV.

Being a normal, thinking human being, you might not have noticed the connection. A bunch of DTV stations carried all-Katrina-all-the-time on secondary multicast channels, a bunch of TV stations that lost analog transmission lost digital, too, and that's about it. But some representatives we've elected ain't normal and don't always seem to think.

Sen. John Kerry is one I had in mind. Even before the water level started to drop in New Orleans, he tied hurricane communications problems to DTV.

Katrina communications problems were caused by downed towers, power loss, broken connections, drained batteries, missing generators, and equipment underwater. Pick one or more. They were not caused by a lack of access to frequencies used for analog TV.

Sen. John McCain has made similar DTV-transition complaints based on 9/11-communications problems. But The 9/11 Commission Report has nothing about frequency problems.

"Most Port Authority police commands used ultra-high-frequency radios [same as UHF TV]. Although all the radios were capable of using more than one channel, most PAPD officers used one local channel. The local channels were low-wattage and worked only in the immediate vicinity of that command. The PAPD also had an agencywide channel, but not all commands could access it."

What else caused communications problems that day? The commission reports on a fire-department repeater. "The activation of transmission on the master handset required, however, that a second button be pressed. That second button was never activated on the morning of Sept. 11." Is the DTV transition going to press the second button?

In hurricanes, when nature packs enough wallop to topple buildings and breach concrete levees, even a fiber-optic or copper communications cable ain't likely to stay in one piece. And without a connection, a transceiver ain't going to aid much communication at any frequency.

You want improved disaster communications? Think about those maggots and leeches.

Even in this age of miracle drugs and microsurgery, it looks like nothing will clean dead tissue from a wound like maggots. And, when a body part gets reattached, the anticoagulant, vasodilator and dispersion agents in a leech's bite seem to work better than anything else at getting and keeping blood flowing. So the FDA's looking into giving both sets of critters their stamp of approval.

The moral is that sometimes old technology works better than new. Now, then, I ain't suggesting FEMA use smoke signals and one-if-by-land/two-if-by-sea lanterns. But I am talking about a version of World War II barrage balloons.

They're currently deployed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they're called RAID. Rather than bug spray (sorry, maggots) or redundant disk arrays, the letters stand for Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment systems.

An aerostat's an airship-like balloon designed not to move. These have a fiber-optic and power tether, and their payload can be communications repeaters. Tethered communications led to the name TCOM, the Westinghouse division spun off with its 35-year-old technology.

Think of them as instant towers. In antennas, as in real estate, the top three characteristics are location, location, location, or, to put it another way, height. TCOM sells an aerostat that hangs at 15,000 feet (it'll do 25,000) for a month before needing service. At that height, one balloon could provide communications for most of the disaster area.

Although they can handle some wind, a nasty blow could snap the tether. But the first post-hurricane truck near the area (no need to go into the water) could quickly launch one (remember "rapid... deployment?"), and all that's needed would be adjusting frequency-agile repeaters to the channels used.

"But, Mario, what if the winds are still too strong?"

No problem. Just go a little ways earlier than TCOM to Stratovision, another Westinghouse development, a plane with communications antennas under its belly. The Midwest Program for Airborne Television Instruction used the system to feed schools (almost 1,800 at a time by 1967) as the plane flew lazy eights (making technicians really appreciate the value of VTR reel locks). But I ain't here to write about improved disaster communications; I'm here to rail against pretending the DTV transition will solve public-safety communications problems.

It won't. But it surely could endanger the public.


When the order came to evacuate (which probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives), most folks learned about it from their TV sets. When levees broke, TV spread the news (while a FEMA official was denying it). WLOX in Biloxi stayed on the air and kept delivering the news even when the roof blew off its newsroom and a foot of rain flooded the building.

Radio was important, too, but both radio and TV stations were knocked off the air. People who wanted information turned to whatever they could get, which was sometimes just TV. The Louisiana and Mississippi broadcasters associations provided 1,300 battery-operated AM/FM/TV receivers to public-safety providers. Here is how many battery-operated DTV receivers exist: zero. Here's one reason why: the power drawn by the digital demodulator and video and audio decoders.

Our Beloved Commish, the FCC, performed superbly, staying open over the Labor Day weekend, helping the Red Cross get the phone number 800-RED-CROSS, and bending rules to help stations knocked off the air get back on, allowing noncommercial stations to carry commercial feeds to help spread the news, facilitating satellite communications and more. My hat's off to them--and to everyone else working on TV during the Katrina disaster.

Here's "The 9/11 Commission Report" quoting a New York fire chief. "People watching on TV certainly had more knowledge of what was happening a hundred floors above us than we did..."

During the Katrina disaster, broadcasters told the government about the evacuees in the convention center. TV reporters got through right from the start, communicated with their studios, braved snipers and high water, and even rescued the stranded.

TV is a first responder.