The 'F' in FCC Stands for Fun!

You might not have noticed that your laptop doesn't have an 802.11a connection. Let me put that another way: you might not have noticed that Our Beloved Commish, aka the FCC, has a great sense of humor.

You think I jest? Ha! They jest! For instance, look at the V-chip. I ain't going to get into a back-and-forth here about censorship versus protecting children. Humor me (chuckle), and assume Congress did the right thing in Sec. 551 of the Telecom Act of '96, the "Parental Choice in Television Pro-gramming" section. It orders Our Beloved Commish to require viewing controls (V-chips) in TVs 13-inch and over, on account of that's the size of home TVs.

So far, so good. But Congress probably couldn't get a VCR to stop blinking 12:00 if all 535 of them took a whack at it, so they didn't notice that around 90 percent of American homes have VCRs, and VCRs are connected between antennas or cable-TV spigots and TVs, and VCRs have tuners. So any kid wanting to watch restricted programming would just have to turn on the VCR.

Our Beloved Commish, I like to think, ought to have at least one person on staff who does know how to program a VCR, so you'd think they would have mentioned to Congress that the V-chip is pretty useless unless VCR tuners are included, too, but no. Best I can figure is that they left VCRs out so they could chortle at Congress anytime someone mentions the V-chip. Bwahahahahaha!


Or how about that hysterically funny broadcast-flag order? The V-chip is supposed to give parents control over programming, but it doesn't on account of VCRs. The broadcast-flag order, which CBS considered so important that they said they'd stop all HDTV if it wasn't implemented (until they changed their minds), is supposed to give broadcasters control over Internet-retransmission of DTV.

Our Beloved Commish did a heck of a job on this one. They weren't just trying to restrict little tykes this time. Oh, no! The order says manufacturers need to make their devices tinker-proof against consumers wielding soldering irons, clip leads, de-buggers, and EEPROM burners. I am not making this up.

And, this time, VCRs ain't an out. Every digital output is covered in one way or another. There's just one itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie loophole, a loophole so small that the pilot of a giant A380 wouldn't want to sleep too long while flying through it. Analog outputs - even HDTV analog outputs - are totally unprotected.

Now, then, maybe you could believe that the executives at CBS had never heard of analog-to-digital converters, but I'd surely hope that someone at Our Beloved Commish had. So why send manufacturers jumping through hoops to stop piracy on digital outputs (and even internal digital signals), when the analog outputs are an open invitation? That's entertainment! Ho ho ho!

"But, Mario, aren't HDTV-rate analog-to-digital converters prohibitively expensive?"

Well, now, I ain't sure what kids' allowances are like these days, but I'll grant you that, if this was the V-chip we were talking about, sure. But it ain't. It's protection against someone with an EEPROM burner, a debugger, and tools. Maybe that person also bought a consumer HDV camcorder (it currently sells for less than the cost of many TVs, and the price keeps dropping).

Most people buy a camcorder for the camera part and the recorder part. But John Q. Pirate can also buy one for what's in between the imager and the tape, an HDTV-rate analog-to-digital converter followed by a convenient bit-rate-reduction system convenient for shrinking the size of the files posted to the Internet (and putting them in an easy-to-decode MPEG-2 format). Tee-hee-hee-hee-hee!


I've been mentioning those folks at Our Beloved Commish who might have an inkling (which, methinks, is a wee drop of ink) about such things as VCR programming and analog-to-digital converters. If anyone ought to have those ink stains, it would be those in the Office of Engineering and Technology. But they're some of the best jokers in the bunch!

Back in 2001, in those dark days before DTV reception got so simple that even a child wielding a spectrum analyzer and an antenna rotator could achieve it (in most outdoor-antenna locations most of the time), the Office issued a report on how great DTV reception already was. Another TV fish-wrap's writer read the report and published a statement about how it said even indoor reception already worked 85 percent of the time.

And why not? That's pretty much what the Office's report said about indoor antennas. It took a bunch more reading to discover that those indoor antennas happened to have been tested outdoors. Har-de-har-har!

And, if you read really deep in the report (Appendix B), you'd see that, if reception didn't work at a selected site due to a null, it was okay to move the whole rig until it did. Maybe there's a good reason critics think the TV show called "The Office" is so funny.

Good gosh! Our Beloved Commish cranks out joke after joke. "Biennial" reviews take place every three years. "Voluntary" plans are voluntary only if everyone abides by them; if anyone balks, they're mandatory (thus the "tuner" mandate, another prank itself). The DTV "core," instead of occupying just one octave in UHF, is straddling more than three, from low-VHF on up.


And now there's the "unused TV spectrum" gag. Our Beloved Commish says unlicensed transmissions - specifically Wi-Fi stuff - are to be allowed in empty TV channels. For some reason, this was considered by many to be news.

Ahem. Have you used a wireless mic recently? If I was a bettor, I'd bet-dollars-to-donuts (and you know how cheap carbohydrates are these days) that it worked on an unused TV channel. Hello? Anyone heard about the Part 15 rules?

"But, Mario, isn't Part 15 low power?"

It surely is. And just what do you think Wi-Fi is?

"But, Mario, couldn't the Wi-Fi transmitters be souped-up to higher power?"

Now, then, there's an interesting thought. Allow me to conduct a thought experiment. Suppose Our Beloved Commish allowed a Wi-Fi transmitter to operate at five megawatts on a 2,000-foot tower. My, my. that's mighty powerful Wi-Fi.

Then add to your supposing that you'd like to interact with that big stick. Does your notebook computer pump out an equivalent five megawatts? Does a big spring shoot it up to 2,000 feet every time it wants to transmit?

No? Well, then, how the heck does the big, powerful stick help in two-way Wi-Fi? Answer: It doesn't.

So all Our Beloved Commish is proposing is more low-power stuff to share TV spectrum. It ain't a terrible idea. There's even a post-Communications-Act-of-1934 aspect of new technology to it called smart radios. They sniff the spectrum and transmit only on unused channels. Heck, that'd probably do more damage to wireless mic users than to broadcasters (except that many wireless mic users are broadcasters).

Anyhow, you might have noticed a wee mite of a hedge in my last sentence. I wrote "probably."

If Our Beloved Commish proposed this back in 1996, before the DTV transition, or in 20xx (yes, I'm being optimistic), after the DTV transition, I wouldn't have hedged. Low-power data transmissions sharing TV spectrum? Hey, welcome to our club! We're nice. Look at the deal we just worked out with Nextel.

But those ever-loving pranksters at Our Beloved Commish proposed it now, in the very heart of the transition, during which everyone and her sister (plus MSTV) is trying to figure out how to squeeze 3,400 full-power TV stations, 5,000 (or should that be 10,000?) translators, and 2,700 (5,400?) low-power stations into an ever-shrinking chunk of spectrum. Even without any new service, the spectrum packing ain't easy. So, even if the new service ain't going to interfere with squat, you've got to expect broadcasters to be touchy about it. And we are!

So now let me cut to the other side. Are we Wi-Fi interests clamoring for the use of TV spectrum? Hang on a sec. Let me turn up my hearing aid. Let me turn it up some more. Maybe a little more. Methinks I hear something, but it sounds more like thermal noise than clamor.

Remember way, way, way back at the beginning of this lunar cycle's rant, when I asked about 802.11a? You do? Wow!

Where was I? Oh, yeah. 802.11a.

Chances are pretty good that you've got some 802.11b or 802.11g equipment. If you've got a Centrino processor in your computer, it's built in. Air Port? You've got it.

As a matter of fact, you might easily have both 802.11b and 802.11g. That's because they use the same frequency ranges. 802.11a doesn't. That's why it's so rare.

So, millions and millions and millions of computers and accessories are being made with 2-GHz-range transceivers, and Our Beloved Commish is proposing that Wi-Fi drop to TV frequencies, where it might even get wiped out by a new transmitter or even a wireless mic. I, for one, am very grateful that some branch of our government is trying to bring us laughter in these trying times.