I Should Write a Blog

I've been posting to Facebook with some frequency the past few weeks, my latest post drew a casual comment about "thanks for the blog" and then my daughter chimed in with a "you should write a blog."

This is my first attempt, playing with the google blogger tools to see what I see. This is very much a work in progress, well really more of an experiment, to see what I shall see.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Cord Cutting: Verizon - Tegna Spat

This past December 31st, sometime in the late afternoon the CBS signal carried by Verizon FIOS replaced the CBS feed with a looping "commercial" giving Verizon's side of a corporate dispute between themselves and Tegna a corporation that owns at least three stations:
  • WUSA (9), the CBS station in Washington DC,
  • WVEC (13), the ABC station in Norfolk, and
  • WGRZ (2), the NBC station in Buffalo.
Access fees appear to have been at the heart of the conflict.  Tegna wanted more money from Verizon to allow the carrier to distribute their signal to Verizon customers than Verizon was willing to pay. 

The result of this corporate battle is the blocking of the network feed that carries popular shows such as the Big Bang Theory, NCIS and NFL Football just as playoff season began.

Fortunately, this conflict came to an end on January 3rd, restoring the network feeds in the three areas affected.  Sadly, this type of battle is an ongoing and repeating issue as reported in this WashPost article covering the resolution of this problem.

My being very annoyed with both parties drove me to better understand the conflict and investigate solutions, or ways for me to be immune to the issue.

Network Access Fee

Television signal carriers (e.g. Verizon FIOS) pay the owners of Television signals aka Broadcasters (e.g. Tegna) for the right to distribute that content. In other words, the broadcasters charge the carriers to distribute their signals in parallel to the broadcast signal they send directly to consumers (at no charge). This strikes me as odd to say the least.

I found an article written by RCN, another carrier that describes the situation from their perspective, I've included an illustration from that article that shows the content flow.

Cable and other carrier subscribers enable two revenue streams to the broadcasters:
  1. Commercial revenue (eye balls on advertisements), and
  2. Access fees from distributors,
while old-style viewers using antennas to receive the signal over the air (OTA) only provide commercial revenue.

Basically the broadcasters are able to double dip on TV Viewers who view their product via a distributor rather than directly over the air. When they want a bigger piece of the pie, they can withhold their signal from the distributor denying the TV Viewer their content and placing huge pressure on the distributor.

This whole situation drives me nuts.  I pay too much to Verizon already and a corporation like Tegna can make that expense pointless.  If only their was a way I could express my displeasure with both corporate entities and reduce their revenue.

What About Cord Cutting?

I've heard talk about cord cutting, that is dropping the Television signal from the local carrier, typically replacing the video content with streaming over broadband (ironically often provided by the same entity that carries the video content being dropped) or other means.  This approach makes little sense to the Network Operator lurking inside me (based on my work experience), replacing a broadcast signal efficiently distributed over a network to many customers with data streams carrying essentially the same content to each customers is just plain wasteful of network resources.  Unfortunately, the powers that be, have built a world with financial incentives for the inefficient approach.

The "cable" companies have worked on aggregating content for a long time and have become very good at it.  A single subscription to a CableCo brings essentially all of the video content available to a household and makes it all accessible though a set top box that often integrates a simple recording device enabling time shifting of shows allowing consumers to never miss a favorite show.  (My personal favorite is TiVo, though alternatives obviously exist). The CableCo's know they have a good product and they exploit that by charging fees for everything including rentals for those lovely set top boxes (avoiding those fees were one of my drivers to using TiVo).

The CableCo customer pays a premium for the convenience of aggregation.  Part of that premium goes to the broadcasters through access fees.  The world of streaming television offers most if not all of the content that the CableCo carries in a more disjoint manner.  Multiple agreements seem necessary to have all of the content and multiple "set top box" equivalents may be needed to view it.  This is a less expensive approach that results in a harder to use solution. In other words, the consumer can reduce expenses by opting for what Clayton Christensen would call a cheaper, crappier product (The Innovator's Dilemma), one where the consumer plays the role of project manager for content aggregation and management.

I've known about cord cutting for years.  My Brother cut his cord more than a year ago and he is doing just fine.  The Tegan-Verizon dust up provided me with incentive to investigate doing it myself.

But, I Want my TiVo (DVR)

I have toyed with streaming.  I already view some content on YouTube (for specific how-to videos) and  HBO Go (to time shift specific content) through streaming on a somewhat regular basis.  I access those streams using my smart phone, Apple TV, and TiVo. They take longer to setup and occasionally glitch while being viewed -- basically they never provide as seamless and easy an experience as viewing content on my TiVo.

I really like having subscriptions (one pass) on my TiVo to the shows I enjoy watching.  I simply turn on the TV, hit the TiVo button on my remote, click "ok" to view my shows, and scroll through the content that has been recorded.  This lets me keep up with all of my series and I get to ignore when they are actually broadcast.  I have control of my viewing, being able to pause a show for my iterations is essential. As an added bonus I can use the skip function, when available, or the 30 second jump to obliterate commercial breaks or other delays (like zebras starring at video tablets) in my shows.  

I don't want to watch a video stream where I must view commercials or wait for a break in the content to take care of a natures calling.  I also don't want to be vulnerable to network glitches or corporate squabbles.  Oh, wait, that last one is a problem, exactly the problem that instigated my looking for alternatives.

OTA Television Viewing 

Back in the olden days, we used to watch television via signal broadcast over the air (OTA) brought into our houses with an antenna.  I thought those days were in my past, but perhaps it is not so.  OTA viewing has several advantages that I have not considered until recently:
  1. Elimination of the distributer (CableCo),
  2. Reduction of expense, and
  3. Much better than expected signal.
Accessing broadcast TV directly over the air removes the need for a distributer, Verizon in my case, and takes me out of disputes between broadcasters and distributers.  I move toward a world where a broadcaster who successfully negotiates higher fees from a distributer can be rewarded by a larger slice of a smaller pie. I like that, it feels like poetic justice.

Ditching a CableCo, where monthly fees can easily exceed $100 and replacing them with an OTA solution at exactly $0 per month is an obvious financial incentive.  Although, some channels are not available (e.g. TBS, SyFy, HBO) without some type of streaming solution. Still, given the expense of CableCo TV, cobbling together a money saving solution seems feasible.

The big hurdle, in my mind, is the quality of that OTA signal.  I  remember the days of the rotating antenna on the roof bringing in a fuzzy picture displayed on a huge, 27 inch console TV. I don't want to go back to that.

Could an Antenna Work for Me?

I know that we converted from Analog to Digital television broadcasts back in 2009. That means that the OTA signal of today is very different from the one I remember and, I hoped, would give me much better results and make this whole Cord Cutting thing appealing to me.

One of my first steps was to do some googling to see what I might expect to receive.  I learned that I am less than 30 miles from the broadcast antennas of my local ABC, CBS, CN, Fox, NBC and several more stations. Learned this information from a very useful website: nocable.org. Below is a view of their estimated access from my location:

My house is located on top of a rise with a relatively clear view toward those towers, obstructed only by a few trees. This makes me believe the estimated coverage is likely understating what I can pull in with an attic mounted antenna. I could probably grab the necessary signal with an indoor amped antenna placed in a window, in fact, I have a neighbor who does just that for one TV.  But I don't want to block a window and I want the best possible signal.

The best possible signal really means an antenna on my roof.  Getting the antenna up high provides a good signal, putting it up even higher provides a better signal.  On the other hand a roof mounted antenna is vulnerable to weather damage, is not visually appealing, and is (illegally) prohibited by many HoAs.  I don't want to see an antenna sticking out above my house and I definitely don't want to put holes in a perfectly good roof, so the highest I can go is in the attic.

My house was wired with coax for cable TV running to nearly every room in the house.  It was built when Cable was the rage so I have lots of unused coax (I currently use wired ethernet for my TiVo based video supplied by Verizon) in my walls. This makes getting the signal captured by an antenna in the attic to any room a matter of some cable detective work, a lot easier than running new cables.

All of that makes me think OTA might work for me.

Obtain an Antenna

After some quick online research, I choose to buy three items from Amazon to give this thing a go:

RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi HDTV Antenna with 70 Mile Range - $42

Winegard LNA-200 Boost XT HDTV Preamplifier, TV Antenna Amp - $37

Channel Master LTE Filter Improves TV Antenna Signals - $23

The antenna I picked has a lot of prongs and not very many loops. Those prongs, the long straight elements look familiar to people who remember TV before cable, they are used to bring in VHF signals (what everything used to be) they are what TV antennas used to be exclusively made of.  Loops are used to capture UHF signals, us grey haired folks may remember them as a wire loop that was used to bring in those high numbered independent stations like channel 53.  More on antenna design at tablotv.com.

I wanted to concentrate on VHF quality as I had learned that my local ABC and CBS broadcasters use VHF and that they are relatively more difficult signals than the UHF broadcasters I hoped to reach.

The antenna also happened to be the least expensive model I found recommended on more than one website.  There are quite a number of sites that have antenna ratings, suggesting this is becoming much more of a thing.

I don't know if I need the amp, I suspect I don't, or the LTE filter, but I wanted them in hand so I could have my best shot at making this work.

When those items arrived, I was ready to setup my test system.

Test Antenna Setup

Before delving into my attic to install an antenna in a challenging environment, I wanted to quickly see if it seemed likely to work.  To do this, I took the new gear to an unused bedroom on our top floor in the south east corner of our house and began setup there.

I assembled the antenna and laid it on the bed pointing generally in a ESE direction (the direction suggested by notable.org) for my location.  Wired it directly to a television and turned the TV on.  Low and behold, it totally didn't work.  Disaster?

As it turns out, my TV needed to "learn" what stations it could receive over the antenna.  I suspected that might be the case and delved into the menu setup options where I found an appropriate choice and launched a signal scan.  The scan ran for something like 10 minutes though it seemed like hours. When it was done, it reported finding more than 50 stations.

I immediately jumped to the broadcast network stations and found that I received all of them and that the picture was perfect.  I mean perfect.  None of the snow or drop outs I remember form the past.  The signal was just great.  I also could bring in a ton of "cruft" networks, I could tune a whole bunch of stations I have zero interest in.  Just like my CableCo service -- but for free!

Next Steps

My prototype works beautifully.  Now I need to do the following:
  1. Connect the bed sitting antenna to my house cable infrastructure,
  2. Test the signal in a remote location through the house cables,
  3. Investigate TiVo service for OTA,
  4. Install antenna in my attic,
  5. Understand what supplements I may want to OTA service
  6. Delve into the economics of cord cutting
  7. Say goodbye to my monthly cable bill.
I've already made progress on steps 1 through 4, but this post is reaching the point of silly long, so that will be covered another day.

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