Sunday, January 11, 2009

Travelogue: Watching The Back Of The Bus As It Drives Away.

Part three of my adventures in travel, in which the grass appears to be greener.

There was a time, before I had other monetary commitments and didn't live in the wilderness, that I was hip to the jive when it came to gadgetry. I was really with it, man! Yeah! I was a real swingin' cat when it came to the newest developments in technology. These days, however, it's quite different. I feel, in many ways, that whilst poverty and location drag me away from what's new and exciting in the world of tech toys, there's also an incredibly unprogressive attitude that works against improving the way things work here in America. Britain's not a big country, so one could argue that it's easier for new technology to be introduced and adopted and accepted, but America used to be the innovators. If something needed to be done, America would find a way. The world used to look to America for inspiration, and to see what the next big thing would be, but from the mid-90s on, it's getting more and more behind in technology. Cellphones, for example. I was sending text messages on my affordable mobile phone in 1996. BSB's receivers had on-screen now/next/time/channel information (not to mention all manner of interactive - and FREE - features) as early as 1989. My SkyDigital box that I got in 1997 did more and worked better than my Dish Network box does in 2009. Even the old BSB 'squarial' satellite dishes seem futuristic and progressive, eighteen years after they were rendered useless.

Digital Terrestrial Television
My mum asked me to hook up their spare TV in the room the kids were sleeping in. Presumably so Dad could get their big-ass telly back on to The Hitlery Channel and off of Boomerang. So I grab the TV and get it set up. "Woo", thinks I, "it's got a Freeview tuner built into it!" So I plug in the ol' stalwart antenna that's been in the loft for almost three decades to the fancy new TV (a very nice little plasma screen, see "freebies" below) and boom. Within two minutes of automatic tuning, FORTY TWO TV channels popped up, along with TWENTY SIX radio channels and two text-based interactive channels. Now, admittedly, it took two badly-run companies to go bankrupt (On Digital, launched in 1998, and ITV Digital, from 2001 to 2002) and for a consortium of companies who "get it"; including the BBC and Rupert Murdoch's B-Sky-B, to step in as co-funders for the digital terrestrial system to be a viable competitor to satellite, but the fact is that terrestrial TV is, finally, a viable competitor. The average consumer, assuming they're not happy with the analogue five (due to be switched off in 2010), can drop not much for a Freeview box and instantly get themselves a cornucopia of choice with no monthlies, or a satellite dish and pay for even more choice (plus free, silent, softcore porn at night).

Traditional terrestrial signals are due to be turned off here in the US next month, but what do you get for switching to digital, stateside? If you're lucky, you get your local network affiliate stations plus - maybe - a sub channel. A channel that will probably shows cheap-as-free reruns (coughcoughAndyGriffithcoughcough) and a pre-recorded local news update outwith the usual local news times. Woo. Although, if you don't live in a decent-sized market, chances are you'll only get your traditional local network affiliates, which equates to roughly five channels. The propaganda will claim that these digital terrestrial signals are far better than their analogue broadcasts, and that there's a huge improvement in picture quality, which may or may not be true, but one fact stands out; If, like me, your locals aren't that great to begin with and the product is flawed at the source, you're still getting pish. Digital pish, but pish nonetheless. What does it cost you to get your locals in digitalpish-o-vision? Well, the FCC will issue you with a discount card to the tune of $40 (two per household), so you can go out and buy a $50 digital converter box for $10. This is all assuming that the antenna you're using is good enough to get the signals in the first place. I got nothing at our house with rabbit ears connected to one of these boxes, so if I wanted to receive these whizz-bang new digital channels, I'd have to spring for a new antenna and whatever the cost of installing it would be. And all for five channels that used to cost nothing. So, at a conservative estimate, let's say $120 for a new antenna, installation and a digital box, and you get what used to cost you bugger all. Or, at least, the price of a set of Radio Shack rabbit ears. A Freeview box - assuming your newish TV doesn't already have a digital tuner built in - would spring you less than a hundred US dollars, and look at what you'd get.

DAB Digital Radio
Come the dawn of digital radio, America and Europe went their separate ways, just as they did in the early years of television, and plumped for two totally incompatible broadcast formats. America went for HD (Hybrid Digital radio, not High Definition radio, as some erroneously assume) whilst Europe went for DAB, Digital Audio Broadcasting. There are debates over what constitutes a listenable bitrate on DAB (and pedantic audiophiles will forever moan that it's not high enough, regardless of what it's set at) but the fact of the matter is this: You go out and buy yourself a DAB radio - some of them the size of an ipod and the price of a new DVD - and you're instantly plugged in to at least fourteen BBC stations and (taking my local area as an example) nineteen commercial stations, some national, some local.

The way the two technologies differ is relatively easy to explain; where HD radio is down to the individual broadcaster, DAB is divided into local 'multiplexes' that carry your local stations (who have invested in the technology to broadcast, like HD) but also several national services. These multiplexes are owned an operated by companies who charge "rent" to stations that want carriage, but will offer a multitude of choice for the DAB consumer. Wherever you are inside that area, you're guaranteed to receive all the stations offered. HD, like digital tv, will give you the local station who has turfed out the bucks for the equipment in order to hear the station, but nothing else. Not unless that particular broadcaster has churned out more cash to operate a point-five service, usually something bland and automated, because hardly anyone has the equipment to listen, so it's not worth the broadcasters' while pouring resources into it. Simply put, if no broadcaster in your area has spring the vast bucks for the HD technology (and who could blame the smaller ones), you're S.O.L for HD.

If the FCC had negotiated with a forward-thinking company that had the guts, resources and money to launch a similar infrastructure and offered a few national stations, even if they were piggybacked NY/LA stations at first, and gave people CHOICE rather than sound quality (which Joe Schmoe couldn't give a toss about, frankly) it could be huge by now. It might have worked if they had copied the DAB idea and had individual local companies operating multiplexes that offered all the locals plus a few nationals.

Do you know what my friends both got for committing to eighteen months of mobile service in Scotland? A free phone and an X-Box 360. Each. Do you know what my Mum got for free when she got some cupboards put up in her spare bedroom? A 20-inch plasma TV.

....Do you know what I got for committing two years of my life to a cellphone carrier? A free Motorola "Krazer", easily one of the most sluggish, buggy and frill-free phones known to man. Hmph.


Angel said...

Well said!!! North America is SO behind on so much - not just technology.

RedZeppelin said...

I think the big difference when it comes to tech in the US is that size does matter. Obviously it's easier to cover the UK with deegital TV and cell service than it would be to cover the entire US.

Plus in the UK you have a greater number of users in that small area, so more folks are fitting the bill for the service.

All Click said...

So much to comment on but i'll just mention that the competition between cell phone networks in the UK is what makes the deals so sweet. Here it seems like they really couldn't care less. I get a crappy plan on AT&T and when they offered me a free phone they had ONE phone in the style I liked and it was frankly no better than the phone I have now which is about 5 years old!

Teh interweb is faster here though!

Spike Nesmith said...

@allclick I wish. We actually pay more for slower speed. My sister almost choked on her tea when I told her what my options were for speed and pricing. But that's in WV, at least. I can't speak for the rest of the country. Maybe one-a them high-fellutin' Fios markets have better internets.

All Click said...

Maybe things have got better back in the old country then. I remember I was only on 1M about two years ago and that was the best I could get. Right now I'm on a just under 5M. It tis expensive though.

I wonder what things are like in some of the bigger cities and wealthy states though. Like LA and New York.