How the Cable Guy could salvage the DTV transition, and why he's afraid to try.

If you don’t live under a rock, you probably know about the U.S. transition to Digital TV broadcasts coming in February.

If you’ve been following it, you know that the number of people affected, i.e. those who receive only over-the-air television, has constantly been in dispute. The Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Consumer Electronics Association, Community Broadcasters Association, and a host of other interest groups with three and four letter abbreviations have all weighed in over the past 3 years (since the “hard date” for cut-off was set) with dueling statistics on how many people are effected by the switch, are aware of the looming transition, have used the Converter Box Coupon program the Government has in place to try and help, and so on and so forth.

We’re not sure how many people get over the air TV exclusively. But we know that a recent test in Wilmington, NC did not go over so well, and could be an indicator of the chaos next February will bring.

What about the Converter Box program? It has been plagued by problems, especially the lack of inclusion of “analog pass-through” mechanisms that would let digital boxers receive the analog signals from “Class A” T.V. stations, low power community stations that often serve minority communities and rural areas. Those stations are not required to switch, but with the wrong converter boxes, could lose much of their audience in one fell swoop.

The status of the program, along with the education campaign that has gone with it, can be summed up with this hilarious, but sadly accurate parody of the PSAs that have been airing more and more frequently thanks to an FCC requirement.

It’s October 19th as I write this. We’re just under five months out from the analog shutoff. And no one really knows what will happen after those transmitters go dark and a few million Americans turn on their TV’s to see…maybe nothing. Just snow. And even if they got a converter box, they might still have a problem.

See, unlike analog signals, which might come in fuzzy but still provide a picture, a DTV signal either gets received, or it doesn’t. There isn’t a trailing off of the signal, there’s just a cliff. And we don’t know for sure how well the digital signals will work or how many people will be affected by reception problems.

And remember those LPTV stations? They are just starting to get funding for their own transition, but they may well be out of business before they can get to it. And what about communicating emergency information and alerts? This is a vital function of broadcasters, whose licenses are conditioned on the requirement that they satisfy the “public interest” in exchange for free airwaves. All those little battery operated sets that people in hurricane and tornado prone regions keep around “just in case?” Worthless. And battery-operated digital sets are so expensive they’re almost impossible to find.

The government agencies in charge of this debacle, the FCC and NTIA, have had since 2005 to prepare for this. There have been many, many oversight hearings on both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol, where a littany of officials, including FCC chairman Kevin Martin and (Acting) NTIA boss Meredith Baker (who has been the third NTIA head since the transition date was set) have told skeptical lawmakers that all is and will be just fine.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, D-Fl., has repeatedly asked where her constituents should turn for emergency information post-cutoff. Her warnings have been ignored by much of the media outside the telecommunications world. But Senate Commerce Committee member David Vitter, R-La. has been strangely silent on the issue despite his state’s tragic experience with Katrina.

So how bad will it be?

We don’t have to find out.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there was a way to get a reprieve for consumers without delaying the transition which will give needed spectrum to public safety personnel as well as open up a whole new generation of wireless networks for consumers and business?

What if I told you that the solution is probably not far from where you are sitting.

It’s Cable TV.

Not the fancy HD Digital Cable with On Demand, but plain old analog cable that you can plug into your “cable-ready” T.V. or get with one of the millions of analog “black boxes” that are rotting away in warehouses.

Cable companies have wiring running past just about every house in America. It’s just that not everyone gets the service hooked up or turned on.

The industry has agreed to keep analog signals flowing down their pipes until 2012. What if the cable companies simply “lit up” a limited analog service (say, carrying the broadcast channels, LPTV signals and regular announcements on how to get DTV reception) and let people get hooked up and plug in for a limited amount of time, during which they would know that a) they need get the problem fixed before the temp service stops and b) give the government time to make sure the job is done right.

Two things would happen:

  1. We would greatly decrease the number of people that would lose access to their over-the-air stations while allowing for a better focused campaign to help the most vulnerable consumers (seniors, language minorities, etc) who may have been missed by the haphazard and last-minute campaign put on by the NAB and FCC.
  2. By measuring how many households hook up to the “transitional” cable, we could get a much better number on how many households got missed by the converter box program but receive OTA signals. We’d also know where they live, so they could get help converting during the time the transitional service is up.

This sounds like a good idea, right? Sort of a mulligan for the FCC and NTIA. And a way for the Cable industry to get some much needed good karma by offering a hand with what could be a very big problem.

But the industry has two roadblocks in the way. First, House Energy and Commerce chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has warned against the industry trying to use the switch for corporate gain. One does not want to incur the wrath of the longest-serving member of the House. And the FCC has also offered cautions to the industry. Nothing gets chairman Martin’s blood boiling like cable ever since they balked at his “a la carte” pricing proposal a few years back.

Second, if the NCTA coordinates any kind of unilateral effort by the industry to help, it could run into antitrust problems. Competitors to cable, including Satellite services, FIOS provider Verizon and maybe even broadcasters themselves might see an attempt to dig the country out of a hole as a power grab and sue. Litigation is not pretty, folks.

There are other, more wonkish concerns as well, This stopgap service could possibly pour gas on the smoldering tire fire of “must-carry” and “retransmission consent” disputes. But

But at this point in the game, letting cable offer a broadcast-only and time-limited service in order to put some more time on the clock might be the best way to turn what could be a major disaster for many into a quantifiable problem that could be fixed with a coordinated effort.

Or we can see what happens and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Just an idea, that’s all.

Things we can agree on.

I had the misfortune recently of sitting through a discussion of the policies of both Presidential candidates on data protection and cybersecurity. Or so I thought.

While the representative from the Obama campaign, a respected law professor and privacy expert who I have seen testify before Congress many times, was direct but cautious in his answers to the moderator’s less-than-pointed questions, the representative from the McCain side, a former FTC commissioner who has also done good work on privacy issues, filibustered, brought up irrelevant things like ACORN instead of talking about problems with the REAL ID Act, and managed to mention taxes 3 or 4 times at least. I’ll have to check my tape while I write the straight news article on the event.

So I left the Rayburn building feeling a bit down about our prospects for achieving things like more broadband access or sane copyright enforcement. But then I got a call from an acquaintance familiar with some of my older blogging work, asked me what I think about Network Neutrality.

Now, I make my living as a journalist. I strive to be objective, which to me means being fair and yes, balanced in how I report on events. This doesn’t mean I give equal time to both sides, or I don’t find a way to debunk a statement or ask a tough question when I hear someone lie to me. It means I keep an open mind, observe, and report. If something is wrong, I find out and report that. I don’t opine for myself. For someone who is self-taught and started as a blogger, it’s not easy. But even as a blogger, I try to be nuanced. There’s too much “hate speech” going around on tech policy topics, whether copyright protection, network management or intercarrier compensation (don’t ask). And topics as complex as these can’t always be boiled down to right and wrong, black or white, A or B.

Back to my phone call. I was giving my personal opinion, based on my years of experience following the telecommunications industry in the private sector, as a journalist, and as someone who enjoys thinking about the law.  Actually, I wasn’t giving much of an opinion at all. How can I?

Surely, there are legitimate issues in dealing with things like network management or network neutrality. They’re complex. They’re often overblown and turned into political footballs. But it’s perfectly reasonable, I said, to believe in things like equal opportunity, rule of law and honesty. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t tip the scales on either side. Do the right thing. Simple, right?

Does that translate into specific policies I advocate? Absolutely not. I’m no more in favor of specific regulations than I am of total deregulation. If you ask me what I really think about a specific net neutrality bill, I honestly don’t have an opinion one way or the other. Really. I just told you what I think one paragraph ago.

I’ll boil it down to this: Look at any policy issue and ask what the right thing to do is. It’s right to make sure the consumer gets what he pays for. It’s right to make sure if someone owns something and another uses it (outside of fair use), the owner gets paid. How do we get there? I’ll let others talk about it and I’ll sit back and report. And if I see bullshit, I’ll ask about it.

What’s my opinion? I don’t know, and I probably don’t care. The wonks and the businesses can hammer out the details. But I think we can all agree that there are things we can agree on in technology.


"Citizen Journalism" — a label for recklessness that has to go.

(note: this story originally appeared on my personal site, Capitol Valley. I am republishing it here because I feel it merits as wide a discussion as possible, and this site attracts a different demographic than the other. Please read and comment.)

Was that headline provocative enough for you? Are you reading? Good! I’m going to let you in on a secret…

there is NO SUCH THING as “Citizen Journalism.”

Do I have to repeat myself? I’ll say it one more time.

There is NO SUCH THING as “Citizen Journalism.”

Good. Now I’ve really got your attention. Please keep reading.

The web allows anyone to publish anything, pretty much at any time, on any subject. With some SEO voodoo, it can even get to a good place in search results.

Cheap video and still digital cameras, broadband, and the advent of blogging have brought about this idea of “citizen journalism,” presumably to report the “real” stories that get ignored by “mainstream media.” Many bloggers have assumed this mantle of “citizen journalist,” and some sites like The Uptake have embraced the idea of publishing firsthand reporting by Joe Sixpack, as Sarah Palin would say. This has acquired the “citizen journalism” title.  Some sites take this further, like the “collaborative journalism” of NowPublic. CNN has had an “iReport” site that posts “citizen journalists'” clips, reports, and other snippets.

This isn’t neccesarily a bad thing. I have no formal training in journalism, but I consider myself a journalist. I think the more people out there who are reporting on events, the better.

But I strongly believe that the idea of “citizen journalism” needs to be abandoned, for good. Heck, I even hate the word “blogger,” especially when describing people like Josh Marshall, who won a Polk Award (for journalism) based on his Talking Points Memo work on the US Attorney scandal. He’s a journalist.

Journalism isn’t so much a profession as it is a craft with a set of values. You practice the craft and follow the values? You’re a journalist.

I’ve covered events, Congressional hearings, and other issues as an independent writer and on behalf of other organizations. I haven’t always gotten paid. But I’ve never called myself a “citizen journalist.”

On the other hand, I do think that when I do these things, I am practicing journalism. Not citizen journalism, just journalism.

If you report on, provide informed analysis or document events for the benefit of an audience in a true and accurate manner, that’s journalism. It’s ok, in my opinion, to have a slant or to call out untruths when you see them. Some people think that reporting requires you to get someone to tell you 2+2=4. I’m not so sure I always agree. Facts are facts, and obvious facts are…obvious.

But when you’re reporting a breaking story that isn’t a widely known fact, you should be checking on the veracity of the story. That means sending emails, making phone calls, or getting off your butt and talking to people, BEFORE you publish. Publishing untruths, like the idiot who told the world (erroneously) that Steve Jobs had a heart attack, is not only irresponsible, but it’s not journalism. It’s rumour-mongering.

Calling it “citizen journalism” and holding it to a lower standard is nothing but a cop-out. Journalism is not a licensed profession, like law or medicine. But it is similar in that it has some fundimental ethical principles that journalists follow:

  • Don’t publish things that aren’t true.
  • Check your sources. Check them twice. If you’re not sure, don’t publish. Being right is better than being first and wrong.
  • Ask questions. Be skeptical. Don’t be a mouthpiece.
  • Avoid conflicts, or disclose them fully and prominently. Kara Swisher has been a shining beacon on this front. Read her disclosure statements. They are easy to find, candid, and leave nothing to question, unlike some other tech bloggers. I respect Michael Arrington, but having a subordinate write about a company you have a stake in is not good enough to pass ethical muster.

This is what Kara has to say about her investments:

I have investments in several group funds, which are managed without my input primarily by an investment bank, and they might from time to time put my money into funds that buy shares of stock in the companies I write about. But I do not have any knowledge about when they buy and sell any shares. I also have several general stock-index mutual funds related to my former employment at Dow Jones, but none is specifically technology-focused, although any one might, from time to time, acquire shares in some technology companies I write about. In this case, as with all my investments, I also have no knowledge of when they buy and sell any shares.

Anyway, considering what happened to Apple’s stock Friday, I will continue to be highly skeptical of anyone who invests in companies that they or their subordinates write about. Arrington has a reputation for firing people for linking to other tech blogs. How do you think he’d handle a negative review of one of his investments?

“Citizen Journalism” does not exist. There is good journalism, and there is bad journalism. Whether you are paid or not is not at issue. The issue is how you go about doing it.

If your house catches fire, the people who put it out may be volunteers, or they may get paid. But they still go into burning buildings, and they all have the same commitment to doing it right.

Think about it.