Friday, May 14, 2010

Your Own AT&T 3G Tower for $150

OK, so it's not actually a cell tower, but if you have a broadband Internet connection, the AT&T MicroCell allows up to four simultaneous users to make 3G data or phone calls within a 40 foot radius.

So if you are one of those people who says, "I can't get a signal on my iPhone inside my house/office," this might be just what you need. You just plug it into your network, register the device online, and you've effectively extended the AT&T 3G cell network to a 5,000 square-foot bubble around the MicroCell.

Though the device is portable and can be relocated, note that the AT&T website recommends "Installing your device near a window is strongly recommended to ensure access to Global Positioning System (GPS). A GPS link is needed to verify the device location during the initial startup."

Why does it need GPS? Based on the next quote from the AT&T site, I'm guessing that there are probably FCC restrictions about using these transceivers outside a geographical area in which AT&T is licensed for radio transmissions: "The device may be moved, provided the new location is within the AT&T authorized service area and properly registered online."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Analog Hole Closes - BE VERY AFRAID

When he was FCC Chairman, Michael Powell (son of Retired General Colin Powell) defended the rights of the taxpayers to retain the so-called "Analog Hole," which today continues to provide a method by which consumers can record television content from their cable boxes, satellite receivers and other devices to VCRs and other recording devices. Powell considered it a right of every citizen of the U.S. to be able to keep a recording of television programming which had already been provided to their home. That right is now in serious jeopardy.

Now, (idiot) entertainment corporations think that their customers (those of us giving them $100+ a month for the "privilege" of watching what programming they choose to provide) are pirating their content and depriving the corporations of income. To prevent us ALL from illegally copying and selling "first run" movies and television programs, the MPAA has managed to convince the current FCC to allow blocking the Analog Hole on selected programming.

U.S. Lets Hollywood Disable Home TV Outputs to Prevent Piracy (Bloomberg BusinessWeek)

This is horrifying.

The infrastructure for blocking the analog outputs on cable and satellite boxes has existed for some time, and software control of the analog video output ports on is already built into existing cable and satellite tuners and DVRs. Any given program could be "flagged" to turn off the analog video ports on these devices, thus preventing recordings from being made onto other media (tape, DVD, hard drive, etc.). Similarly, the ability to prevent any given program from being recorded internally on a DVR/PVR has been in place, potentially providing a mechanism for content owners to prohibit the delayed or repeated viewing of programming on DVRs, or even to force viewers to watch shows live. Consider the live voting aspects of today's performance reality shows - the call counts serve as collateral for advertising negotiations, and text-messaging may generate significant income. Some sources report that the 2009 season of American Idol generated 178 million text message for AT&T - an Idol sponsor.

American Idol sees 178M SMS interactions (

In 2007, media-ratings giant Nielsen Media Research adopted a metric known as "C3," which takes into account programs viewed on a DVR, but only up to three days from the original date of airing. Thus, forcing viewers to watch by "expiring" programs on their DVRs ensures a maximum rating.

The same advances of the Digital Age which promised (and in some cases, has delivered) higher-quality delivery of content is also perceived as a threat by those largest of entities which make their money from licensing media content. As a result, in a time when we should be able to make perfect recordings to view later, or share with our family and friends, we consumers are treated like criminals - and as a result may never again have the equivalent functionality of the lowly VHS videotape recorder again. Would Grandpa like to see that show about the Korean War that's coming on this week? Maybe, but unless he installs a cable service which carries that channel, or that show is eventually made available on DVD, or streamed on a paid Internet streaming service, you and Grandpa are out of luck.

Worse yet, those hundreds of millions of U.S. consumers who continue to use their analog televisions with cable, satellite and broadband carriers may be forced to buy new "digital" televisions, which by law incorporate hardware and software (HDCP) to make encrypted connections with set-top tuners and DVRs. Those consumers using legacy analog televisions are using the very Analog Hole through which "piracy" is considered to be such a threat. These taxpayers would be left out in the cold, unable to view "first run" programming unless they purchased a new television.

And is this stopping "piracy?" In the Digital Age, only a single source is required for an infinite number of identical copies. So does knee-capping the entire Planet of Paying Customers have any affect upon the Professional Media Pirate, who can pay off an employee of a movie distribution company to "borrow" a high-quality master recording, or hire a team of programmers to "crack" the latest encryption solution?

It takes me several hours of effort to archive a single hour of television programming extracted via the Analog Hole. The process requires:
  • connecting a video/audio digitizer and computer to their cable/satellite boxes
  • capturing programming in real-time (waiting the entire duration of the program to "digitize" to computer; and we've often already seen the program, so yet more time from our life is invested)
  • editing out the commercials
  • burning the resulting content to a DVD or encoding for playback on a portable device or computer
...a process I do several times a month to provide classroom material, which is presented to students (thus far) under the Fair Use Doctrine of U.S. copyright law.

How many people are going to this trouble? How many of those people, who have ALREADY SEEN THE PROGRAM, are going to choose NOT to buy the program, but rather spend hours of their life digitizing it? (We would and have bought programs on DVD when available - it's much easier and looks better.) And how many of these same people are going to distribute it to their friends, who will also then not buy that piece of programming? How many friends do they have? Where is the lost revenue for the industry?

Piracy is nearly unavoidable. Nearly every attempt to prevent piracy through technological means has been thwarted by even more clever humans - often more for sport than profit. I was amazed to discover almost three years ago that illicit, high-quality, high-definition copies of U.S. prime-time television series were available within only a few hours - barely time enough for doing the work - on Internet sites available world-wide. I repeat: only a SINGLE SOURCE - a single person - is required to devise a method to circumvent a copy-protection scheme. That single person can then provide perfect digital copies infinitely to the rest of humanity. Big Media knows this - they were the ones who paid for all the copy-protection schemes that have been "cracked." Their solution? Use The Law, so that it won't matter so much if the technological schemes are unsuccessful. Some aspects of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (Pub. L. 105-304, 1998) make it illegal to be in possession of implements (hardware or software) which might be used to circumvent anything described as a copy-protection device. So, for instance, if you had a piece of email which described a method to allow your cable box to continue to play video to your existing analog television, even when that program had been flagged to turn off the analog ports, you might be in violation of a Federal Law.

In response to this factory-style illicit sharing of current broadcast content, some large media entities have really come around. Big old-school TV networks ABC and CBS, for example, provide very high-quality Internet streams of their current and recent episodes on their corporate websites - free of charge. This was the Right Thing To Do. Give people an easier, better way to watch your TV shows than downloading an illicit copy from a file-sharing site. Better yet: they get to run advertisements - their primary source of income - in these Internet streams. Even better: unlike broadcast TV, where no one really knows who is watching what and when, you can guarantee advertisers that their "roll-in" commercials that run before and during Internet streams are being seen, with no options for fast-forwarding, and often being only 30 seconds, not long enough for a snack or bathroom break.

With the release of Apple's iPad in March of 2010, ABC Television released a free iPad app which just brings all the current ABC shows in very high quality to wherever you want to be with your sleek media tablet. These guys Get It. (The fact that Steve Jobs is on the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company may be significant here.)

Introducing the ABC Player for iPad™ (

If more content-owners were savvy enough to provide easy, low-cost methods for consumers to pay for content - say, 25 cents for a TV show - they'd find more people willing to give them money. By choosing only to make this MORE constrained, content-owning corporations may ultimately be driving customers away for good. As it is, every time we ask a teenager if they watch television, they tell us they watch "one or two shows," but "mostly I watch YouTube." Old-school television had better be paying attention. I, for one, would really like to continue to see stories told, rather than more people being hit in the groin with flying objects.