Ocean wave“Something’s comin’ up
And I don’t know what it is
Something’s comin’ up
And I don’t know where it’s gonna take me” –Barry Manilow

My apologies for starting a post with a Barry Manilow lyric. There’s a similar snippet in West Side Story, but that one is more optimistic. “Something’s Comin’ Up” matches what I see – the video viewing world will be much different 10 years from now, but no one knows exactly how it will look. Whether it will be good or bad for us viewers will depend on a lot of factors, especially how fast your internet connection will be.

First comes an amazing story published by Advertising Age. According to report from Horizon Media, the median age for prime-time broadcast TV viewers has gone up by four years during the last four years. That means that there were only as many new, young viewers added as there were older viewers who died. The same median almost-47 year old in 2006 kept watching and became the median almost-51 year old today. (Props to Tod Sacerdoti for mentioning the report on his blog.)

Think about it. This means that very few young people care about broadcast TV. But they do care about the internet. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seems to be recognizing and anticipating this shift, finding wireless internet spectrum from mobile satellite services and setting his sights on taking a chunk away from broadcast TV. The broadcasters are fighting hard against this idea even though they’d get paid for relinquishing the space and that, well, they don’t actually own those pieces of spectrum in the first place.

Second, there’s Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth: A high-end user’s connection speed grows by 50% per year. It used to be crazy to think that every home user could get any channel he wanted, live or on demand, via IP. Now with ever-faster speeds and load-balancing, widely distributed content servers, that’s not so crazy. It used to be easy to say that satellite broadcasting offered the least expensive way to simultaneously reach hundreds of millions of live viewers. At some point, an IP-based delivery system will be cheaper. Already, PBS has announced it will shift some of its non-real-time program delivery from satellite to IP.

Third, more households are cutting back or dropping traditional pay-TV services. A report from Yankee Group said that one in eight would at least cut back in 2010. Add in anecdotal evidence of viewers who are switching to broadcast HDTV with dozens of channels in most markets. With an increasing minority of broadcast TV viewers, maybe it’s not so simple to predict the end of over-the-air TV.

(Or maybe we can anyway. At least one federal spectrum reallocation plan suggested free lifeline cable TV for soon-to-be-former OTA viewers. One TV repeater district servicing far-flung households in rural Nevada suggested switching everyone there to satellite pay-TV.)

So what does it all mean for FTA satellite? Leave a comment and tell me. Meanwhile, I’ve got one crazy prediction that I’ll save for my next post.

Upside-down, kind of broken dish

Not the right way to point a dish

Just when I thought I had figured out every way to get a dish installation wrong, Mother Nature showed me another one. Earlier this week, some really high winds blew over my primary Ku-band dish, supports and all.

First, some background. When I was just getting started in FTA, I wasn’t entirely sure what would be the best spot in my yard for a dish. On one hand, I needed to secure the dish so it wouldn’t move. On the other, I wanted to be able to move it if I turned out that I had misjudged the angle over the trees to the satellite that I wanted. (This impermanence also improved the WAF for the project. That’s important!)

One day Real Soon Now I’ll lay out all the steps and missteps of those early days, but today you just get a couple of highlights. My first attempt at impermanent dish mounting was a metal pole in a five-gallon bucket of cement. This technique works pretty well with a tiny Dish Network-style dish on a low pole. But for a 76-cm Ku-band dish, I needed a taller pole, and the bigger dish caught more wind. In almost less time than it takes to type, the contraption blew over, bending the dish arm and showing me that an above-ground bucket of cement is insufficient ballast for a high Ku-band dish.

Major Step 2 was construction of a wooden platform to hold the foot of the dish. I took three regular 2x4s and cut them all in half. Laying them out on their sides, I lined up the six pieces so that the outer four formed roughly a square and the other two lined up with the screw holes on the dish foot. After leveling the platform, I screwed them together, screwed the dish foot to the middle pieces, and all was well. The broad, heavy platform kept the dish in one place, especially with it so low to the ground.

A few years later, I upgraded to a 1.2-meter dish. For this taller, heavier dish (with a much heavier pole-foot), I built a larger platform, using 10-foot 2x4s for a roughly 5-foot square. I attached the foot to the north side of the platform, knowing that the prevailing northerly winds could not push the dish forward and down because the attached platform would be in the way.

It lasted for a couple of years that way, until Monday. That’s when freakishly strong winds came from a freaky direction – south. The wind blew the dish backward, taking the platform with it. When the dish landed hard, the platform continued its rotation and smacked down on the dish arms.

It looked awful, but fortunately, there was little lasting damage. The dish foot screws all ripped free of the wooden platform. One of the RG6 cables snapped off at its connector. The plastic LNB holder had broken in two. But the dish, even the support arms were all as good as new. Some Super Glue for the holder, a fresh RG6 cable and new screws on a flipped-0ver platform got the dish back in business. I made sure the platform was level and repointed the dish, and all is well.

What’s the lesson here? If you should happen to choose such an impermanent “sled” platform for a dish, at least get something to fasten down the front of the platform so it won’t flip back. I bought a couple of heavy-duty tent spikes, attached a cable between them, then drove them down far enough so the cable prevents the platform from moving up, but not so far as to force it off level. What you use to keep it down is up to you.

Beware the zombie satellite

Beware the zombie satellite

Some bloggers make lots of short posts to quickly reflect whatever they care about at the time. So far, I’ve been collecting thoughts and lumping them together. Would you rather see shorter, more frequent posts? Like it the way it is? Leave a comment, please.

* The mainstream media is slowly coming around to reporting the odd problem that is Galaxy 15. About a month ago, April 5, Intelsat lost control of the satellite. That’s not so unusual; all satellites eventually go bad. But when most satellite die, they die. Galaxy 15 isn’t responding any more, but it still thinks it’s alive, and that’s what’s causing the problem.

Galaxy 15 carried some C-band programming, almost all scrambled, which cable TV systems picked up, descrambled, and passed along to their subscribers. You can get a good idea of what it had by seeing what’s on Galaxy 12, the replacement that Intelsat quickly moved into position. Galaxy 15 thinks that it’s still relaying those signals, so it’s continuing to broadcast on similar frequencies.

Without a steady hand to keep it in one place, Galaxy 15 is shuffling over to a Lagrange point, one of those gravitational dips that weakly attract wandering objects. Along the way, it’s going to pass by AMC 11, an SES New Skies satellite that also broadcasts to cable systems on similar C-band frequencies. They’re not too worried about collisions; there’s a lot of room up there, and plenty of time to move out of the way. But Galaxy 15 could get close enough to interfere with AMC 11′s signals. If the satellite operators don’t take corrective action, cable subscribers could have to spend several days without MTV.

For a more thorough discussion of this situation, your best choice is Doug Lung’s updated story in TV Technology.

* My latest tweet (you are following FTAList on Twitter, aren’t you?) concerns the US Court of Appeals ruling on setting damages on satellite piracy. The original case was three years ago, but the appeal was decided yesterday.

A jury found that one sad guy had watched unauthorized DirecTV signals for 435 days, so he was fined $43,500. Another guy had distributed four illegal devices, and he got hit with $44,000.

Not only is piracy unethical and bad karma, it’s also got a terrible risk-reward ratio. But you already knew that.

* When you’re away from your dish, the next best thing is TVU Networks for Windows, iPhone or iPad. You’ll recognize a lot of the foreign-language channels that are available FTA, plus several public-domain movie channels that are almost as good as White Springs used to be. Poke around the long list of channels and check it out.

Thoughtful young womanIn a thread in the FTA section of DBSTalk, someone wrote, “I don’t understand why FTA isn’t more popular.” That’s a good question. (Okay, it’s not actually a question, but you get the idea.)

There are at least two good reasons why FTA isn’t more popular. The first is analogous to the difference between paying DVR fees vs. building your own DVR.

The big channel providers (cable, pay-TV satellite) promote their DVRs through lots of advertising. Their monthly DVR fees pad the bottom line, and having lots of stored programming reduces customers’ desire to leave for another provider.

But a savvy viewer could take an ordinary computer, add a card or two and some software, sign up with a free listings service, and create his own DVR with zero monthly fees and full portability.

So why don’t more viewers make their own DVR? Initial cost, time, technical competence, convenience, and promotion. Making a DVR costs a few hundred if you don’t have a suitable spare computer sitting around. It takes time to find and install all the necessary pieces. It takes a small bit of technical competence (or at least technical confidence) to open up a computer and add a card. This is nowhere nearly as convenient as letting the nice installer hook up your ready-to-go DVR. Finally, if you’re a techie, you’ve read stories about home-grown DVRs about a tenth as often as you’ve seen ads for providers’ DVRs. If you’re not a techie, you might never have heard of home-grown DVRs at all.

FTA is very similar. Compared to the millions the big providers pour into advertising, the promotion of FTA shines like a dime on the floor of a treasure vault. It takes real out-of-pocket cash to get started with FTA, and it takes a bit of work and technical competence. But folks who have figured it out know that it’s worth it.

One thing FTA needs is a receiver that’s as easy to use as a cable box. But FTA receivers also need to handle a variety of new and challenging DVB-S2 formats with high bit rates to support true HD programming. Right now, those two goals seem to be incompatible. I’m looking forward to the day when I get a receiver as rock-solid as my old Fortec Star Mercury II, yet able to handle every FTA HD signal that’s thrown at it. Maybe in another year or so?

The second big reason that true, legal FTA isn’t more popular is piracy. In some people’s minds, FTA = piracy. That’s because a lot of pirates use “FTA” to mean pirating signals. Some Dish Network folks talk about a “FTA problem” when they, no doubt, really mean a piracy problem.

FTA feels a little too good to be true. (All these channels, and I never have to pay anyone for them, ever?) Take that thought and add in a distant echo of an old busted-pirate news story or your co-worker’s second cousin’s trailer-park friend, and you’ll get some people who believe that any FTA must be illegal or immoral or something. It’s not entirely logical, but I’ve seen it happen.

Personally, I think the answer is to come up with a new name for legal FTA. Imagine an association of equipment dealers and broadcasters (e.g. FreeDBS, or an reincarnated White Springs) coming up with a trademarked name for watching in-the-clear satellite TV signals. Then maybe we’d start transitioning to a discussion of KleerSat channels.

PushpinsEarlier this week, I was getting excited about adding a new over-the-air broadcast channel to FTAList. KNWS (Katy / Houston TX) was in the clear on AMC 21, where it joined all those great PBS feeds. But KNWS isn’t a PBS affiliate. It’s thoroughly independent, providing daily doses of The Cosby Show, Rosanne and Cheaters. Just as I prepared to update the database and send a tweet about it, I made one last check. KNWS was gone. Darn it!

And the weird thing is that almost the same thing happened the next day. CNN, of all things, popped up in one of the Veterans Administration slots on Galaxy 18. This time, I knew that there was essentially no chance that this would last long. Sometimes satellite operators copy a signal up through a slot like that just to make sure it’s working, and this looked like one of those times. Still, just as I was about to send a tweet about this one, CNN was gone. Nice while it lasted.

Although I’ve seen similar temporary channels while blind-scanning the skies, these two tips both came from posters at Ricks Satellite forum. Even though I can’t point at a new “permanent” channel right now, at least I can remind you to check Ricks for the latest in temporary channels, especially sports feeds. It’s great for Ku-band, but if you have a big C-band dish, Ricks is as good as it gets.