Memo to the Federal Communications Commission: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
As I sit and write this, it’s halfway through Day 2 of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath. We’ve been without power since 7:20 PM on Monday night, when a large oak tree fell across the primary 34,000 volt power lines that feed hundreds of homes around here, breaking one cable completely and snapping a power pole in half.
The Asplundh tree guys have already been through with their chainsaws, and we await the PECO service trucks with some anxiety. The food in my freezer is finally thawing out, and most of it will have to be thrown away. We have a pretty good stockpile of drinking water and distilled water for cooking, plus gray water for flushing toilets. And there’s more than a half-cord of wood that can be burned in my fireplace to keep the downstairs temperatures in the mid-60s.
But we have no Internet access, as the fallen tree bent and snapped the combined Comcast/Verizon feeder cables on the same pole as our electrical service. Mobile phone service is spotty – many of the cell towers nearby are operating on limited emergency power with generators – and trying to access the Internet on my Droid phone takes forever.
With Comcast knocked out, I have no cable TV service. But I do have an ace in the hole: Unlike my neighbors, I have a few rooftop TV antennas and can watch over-the-air digital TV broadcasts from Philadelphia and New York City.
My antenna system is powered by a few Channel Master preamplifiers and the OTA signals are available in several rooms. To power everything, I have a large 700-ampere truck battery driving a Radio Shack 300-watt AC inverter I picked up years ago. The inverter also connects to a power strip in my family room, where I can charge my phones, my eBook readers, my computers, and power an Eviant T7 LCD TV.
After the storm passed through Monday night, the Eviant TV and a Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick tuner were the only ways I could get any updates on storm damage. The Internet and cell phones were either out of commission or unreliable. But I was still able to watch broadcast digital TV.
No doubt about it; Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented Category 1storm. We were lucky to avoid the devastation of the Jersey Shore, as only 1 – 2 inches of rain fell in our area and most wind gusts were well under 50 miles per hour. Even so, our roads are littered with downed trees and many of them won’t be cleared for another week.
Not surprisingly, I ran into many people at the nearby convenience stores standing in line for coffee and clearing the shelves of milk, bread, and other supplies. A few of them expressed frustration with spotty mobile phone service, and of course everyone is at their wit’s end without Internet access. (How ever did our grandparents manage to survive storms all those years ago?)
When a few of my neighbors bemoaned the cutoff of TV service, I mentioned my antenna system and how it had withstood high winds to provide me with a multitude of channels, by which I was able to stay on top of road closings, weather forecasts, and see just how much damage Sandy had done to the immediate area.
I write this keeping in mind that Verizon, AT&T, and the CTIA continue to push the FCC to take away more UHF TV spectrum through auctions in favor of expanding mobile broadband service. Ironically, in a crunch, the only reliable electronic information service I have is over-the-air TV, and it looks like that will be the case for at least another day or two.
And this storm has provided a perfect example of why shared-bandwidth networks (cell phones and the public Internet) are simply not reliable during widespread emergencies: There are just too many people trying to use them, and falling trees and flooding can knock out a connection for days on end.
In contrast, it doesn’t matter whether ten people or ten million people watch a digital TV broadcast – the picture and sound quality are constant, and there is no network to overload and crash. And you can watch digital TV on a variety of portable devices, such as the Eviant LCD TV or a computer equipped with an appropriate USB stick tuner.
Our free, over-the-air digital TV system continues to serve us well in emergencies – Hurricane Sandy has proved that conclusively. And there are other ways to address the so-called “wireless broadband spectrum crunch” that the CTIA claims is imminent, such more efficient channel modulation techniques using time domain multiplexing and freeing up vast numbers of frequencies currently occupied by the federal government.
The bigger problem is that our current mobile phone services still have major reliability issues when disaster strikes. Perhaps the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world should concentrate their efforts on improving their existing networks for when the next big storm hits. What good is an expanded mobile broadband system if it’s still going to crash during an emergency?
Like I said at the start of this piece: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…
Posted by Pete Putman, November 2, 2012 2:06 PM
About Pete PutmanPeter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.
Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.