With Gifts Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE NOTICED that Congress doesn't write all the laws. Nature has come up with a few. Last time I checked, the Second Law of Thermodynamics didn't appear in the Federal Code.

I'm pretty danged certain Congress would try to change the speed of light in a vacuum if they could figure out some political advantage. They ain't going to be able to do it, but that surely ain't likely to stop their trying.

For instance, have a look at Section 531 of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, passed in May. The parts of the act other than Section 531 cover things like stockpiling potassium iodide to be used in case of nuclear disaster.

Section 531, on the other hand, tells Our Beloved Commish (a/k/a the FCC) to issue DTV channels now to analog TV stations that had their applications in by October 24, 1991 but got their construction permits after the original DTV-allocations table came out in 1997. Does that sound like public health security or bioterrorism preparedness and response to you? Me, neither.

Whoopsie! Sorry about that. I misspoke myself (and I'll clean it up as soon as I can). "Issue" ain't exactly the right word; "give" is. The same Congress that has been complaining about the "gifts" of DTV channels that were "given" by Our Beloved Commish to all of the TV broadcasters as of April 1997 now wants the same Commish to "give out" more of those same "gifts."

You might wonder where Congress came up with the date October 24, 1991. That's easy. It appears in Our Beloved Commish's Sixth Report and Order on MM 87-268, a/k/a the DTV rules that came out in April 1997. The part of the order where it appears is the part (Paragraph 8) where Our Beloved Commish says they really, really wanted to accommodate those stations but were having trouble squeezing everyone into the DTV allocations table.

Methinks certain members of Congress have the impression that there's a big vault at OBC-HQ. Inside the vault are expensive packages, each of them containing a DTV allocation. If the mood of Congress swings one way, Our Beloved Commish gave out too many packages; if it swings the other, they didn't give enough.


At the risk of becoming the subject of a congressional investigation into what the President knew about my (or should I say "our"?) secret identity and when he knew it, I (or should I say "we"?) would like to make a voluntary statement. Those lovely gift-wrapped packages of DTV channels don't exist. They never did.

Yes, Senator, I'm aware that what I just stated is bound to be shocking. Yes, of course I have proof, Senator. Here's Exhibit A:

Remember way back when the first DTV stations started coming on the air? On or about February 26, 1998, WFAA-TV, Channel 8 in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex market, turned on its DTV signal on Channel 9. As many news folks reported at the time, a dozen heart monitors at Baylor Medical Center stopped working.

Before I go any further with this, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I do not think that problem had anything to do with any action WFAA took. I think they behaved very honorably in the situation, maybe even saving some lives. I also don't think the heart-monitor debacle reflected any problem with the ATSC DTV standard nor even with Our Beloved Commish.

Plenty of mistakes have been made with regard to U.S. DTV. That wasn't one of them.

No, I bring up the heart-monitors fiasco to make only one point: Adjacent channels weren't usable before DTV.

Here's the deal: Under Our Beloved Commish's TV table of allocations, if there's a Channel 8 broadcasting analog NTSC TV in a city, there can't be a Channel 7 there, nor a Channel 9.

It makes plenty of sense. If you had analog NTSC stations broadcasting away on both channels 8 and 9 in any given city, they'd interfere with each other.

So, the heart-monitor folks, like the wireless-mic folks before them, looked to use empty adjacent channels for their flea-power transmissions. The low power wouldn't interfere with TV sets, and the operating NTSC channel guaranteed the emptiness of the adjacent channels - until DTV that is.

WFAA-DT wasn't flea power. Ergo, the heart monitors ceased functioning. But you never saw any stories about any Channel 8 Metroplex viewers complaining about interference from Channel 9 - at least I (or we) didn't.

That's because an occupied DTV channel pretty much looks like noise to analog NTSC TV sets. Noise ain't necessarily the greatest thing in the world, but, in the grand scheme of things, it's one whole heck of a lot nicer than a sound carrier, a color subcarrier, and a VSB picture carrier driven heavenward with each sync pulse.


I see you scratching your head, Senator, so let me try to be clearer. Here's Exhibit B:

Maybe a couple of years after Channel 8 started transmitting on Channel 9 in the Metroplex, WMVS-DT in Milwaukee fired up on channel 8, and some viewers of co-channel WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan started complaining about excessive interference. Again, I ain't blaming WMVS here, and I surely ain't going to blame the WOOD viewers.

With Exhibit A, I made a point about adjacent channels in the same place. This time I'll make one about the same channel in adjacent places: It's a no-no, too. Our Beloved Commish thought Grand Rapids and Milwaukee were far enough away for DTV-into-NTSC co-channel interference. Maybe they were; maybe they weren't. The laws of physics ain't as easy to grasp as the ones you, Senator, write.

Yes, Senator, I can see you're starting to grasp the points. Our Beloved Commish can't just mosey on down to the vault and emerge bearing new DTV allocations for new stations because they've already crammed about as many DTV allocations as possible into the existing spectrum - maybe too many, as the WMVS/WOOD example shows.

Once NTSC transmissions are shut down, there'll suddenly be a lot more allocations available. No, that isn't happening this year, Senator. It isn't going to happen by December 31, 2006, either, Senator. Yes, Senator, you are correct; that's why Our Beloved Commish has postponed the spectrum auction yet again.

Those are my (or our) comments on the idea of forcing Our Beloved Commish to suddenly come up with more DTV allocations. On the other issue, the channel giveaway, I (or we) have this to say: There wasn't any giveaway of DTV channels to broadcasters because there was nothing to give away in the first place.

Take the WFAA example. On account of WFAA-TV broadcasting on Channel 8, there couldn't be an NTSC analog TV broadcaster on Channel 9 in the Metroplex. The channel was just sitting there, unused except for maybe some wireless mics and some heart monitors that sneaked into the spectrum without paying for any licenses.

It had to be unused until something came along that would allow single-city adjacent-channel operation. That something was DTV. Channel 9 wasn't a gift to WFAA; it was an obligation.

Like other DTV broadcasters, they've now got to transmit on two channels simultaneously, even though the audience for the DTV channel is, as far as statistical analysis goes, pretty much non-existent. Yes, Senator, there's more.

Within three years, DTV/NTSC broadcasters won't be able to do anything with their two channels that they couldn't do with just one. Our Beloved Commish requires 100 percent simulcasting of the NTSC channel on the DTV channel in 2005. That means that the NTSC channel simply repeats one stream of programming that's already on the DTV channel (maybe the only stream).

So a TV broadcaster adds MPEG and AC-3 encoders, a PSIP generator, a multiplexer, an 8VSB exciter, a transmitter, an antenna and maybe a new tower and feed line. Then it pays for power for years while the DTV audience grows so that eventually the NTSC transmitter can be turned off. When it finally is, Our Beloved Commish reclaims a channel from each dual (NTSC/DTV) broadcaster. That way, Our Beloved Commish can do some allocation shuffling to clear out the 700 MHz band so that the folks who bought spectrum there (enriching the U.S. Treasury) can finally use it.

Those spectrum-buying folks can use it only after the TV broadcasters clear out on account of that's when there won't be any more co-channel or adjacent-channel problems. That's also when the TV broadcasters will be back to one channel each, the same as they had before the transition.

So, they start with one channel, they end with one channel, they have lots of expenses in between, and they're not allowed to do more than they can with one channel. Gee, Senator, could you let me know what part of that last sentence means "gift"?