RabbitEars.info – Interview with Webmaster Trip Ericson
I’m happy to announce DTVUSAForum’s first ever interview with webmaster Trip Ericson of RabbitEars.Info. If you ever want to know what DTV stations are available in your city/market, visit Trip’s Digital TV Market Listings area. Before we begin, I’d like to personally thank Trip for taking the time to answer these questions and help out at DTV USA Forum.
1. Trip, please tell us about yourself.
I am a 20-year old student of the University of Virginia who is studying Electrical Engineering. I’ve held an interest in TV for as long as I can remember, ever since one time around age 4 I saw stations in the newspaper listings that we could not receive on the TV and wondered why. At age 6, my family moved to Virginia from New Jersey. In rural Virginia, stations from surrounding cities were very common catches, and did a lot to help promote my interest in television.
I got into digital TV when I was a fan of a TV show that got moved from the local Fox station to the local WB station. The WB station was digital-only, so I purchased a Hauppauge WinTV-D in early 2003 and was able to use it to watch not just WB, but WDBJ had subchannels as well. Later in 2003, I bought a Zenith HDV420 and a USB analog receiver to use in the car, which was probably among the first “mobile digital TV” rigs outside professional circles.
Once I started RabbitEars, I became better known and now I have many contacts with many station engineers. I’m presently interning at WDBJ in Roanoke where I spend a decent amount up on Poor Mountain and I spent some time taking phone calls right after the transition. I’m hoping to become a broadcast consulting engineer or broadcast lawyer or something along those lines, given how much time I’ve spent reading and understanding FCC filings and docmentation.
2. I also understand that you’re a licensed Technician-class ham radio operator. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I met the President of the Ham Radio Club at UVA through Slashdot.org. They had a story about digital television in which I posted a comment. He visited my website and discovered that I went to UVA. I met him and he introduced me to ham radio, which is basically non-commercial point-to-point communication. A few months later, the club held a testing session and I am now licensed as KJ4IEA. I am the Secretary for the club in the upcoming school year.
Ham radio is quite an interesting thing. There are ham bands all over the spectrum, including near the AM and shortwave bands. With very little power, it’s possible to communicate with people around the world on the right frequencies. My interest, however, lies more with VHF and UHF. Of course, not all ham radio is audio, there’s also sending images, slow-scan TV, packet (sending data), and on UHF, it’s possible to do amateur TV. As long as it’s non-commercial and involves RF, you can probably do it with ham radio.
3. Please tell us what RabbitEars is all about.
RabbitEars is essentially supposed to be the replacement for 100000watts.com. That’s what RabbitEars is in a nutshell.
100000watts.com was started a very long time ago by Chip Kelley. The site was a listing of every TV station in the US in a neat, easy to read form. It grew in scope and eventually included AM and FM as well. But the problem was that everything was done by hand. Even the FCC data was hand-entered, and it got to where Mr. Kelley simply no longer had the time to do it anymore. He was planning to shut the site down, but then Clear Channel stepped in and offered to buy it from him. He took the offer and then Clear Channel made the site subscription-only. It was at that time that I decided I wanted to come up with a replacement for it.
I registered the name “RabbitEars.Info” right after that, but my problem was that I did not know how to code automated things like would be necessary, not wanting to fall into the trap that Mr. Kelley fell into. I had a site design and some very basic PHP and database stuff, but I knew it would consume too much time, so I gave it up. When the transition finally got going in 2008, I realized that there was no central listing of DTV subchannels, so I hand-prepared a textual list and stuck it on the RabbitEars domain. Shortly after that, I started processing the digital transitional reports that stations filed with the FCC, and had another hand-managed page for that. But as the page got attention, I started getting corrections to the horribly incomplete data kept on the rest of the site. I posted a notice that the rest of the site was to be ignored and that I would need programming help if anything was to come of it.
On March 14, 2008, Bruce Myers e-mailed me out of the blue and said he had thrown together a little something and offered it to me. So I looked at it and it was amazing. On April 14, 2008, RabbitEars launched as you see it today. None of it would have happened without Mr. Myers, and he remains involved in the site. Since that time, I’ve learned a lot both from him and from looking at the code on the site, and have hacked at it myself. I’m continuously coming up with new features to add and changes to make, so even the site you see today is very different from the site of last year. TVGOS, UpdateTV, and Mobile DTV were not even on my radar when the site launched last year, and I’ve since had to become an expert on TVGOS just to keep up with the e-mails, and have read a lot into Mobile DTV.
I hope for RabbitEars to continue to be a great resource.
4. I understand that you have had some help with maintaining the DTV channel table spreadsheet. Can you tell us about this?
Well, I have nothing to do with the spreadsheet besides the hosting. The spreadsheet is Falcon_77’s personal project, and it started off hosted on AVS Forum. I remember looking at the spreadsheet and being very impressed with it, so much so that I decided I would really like to have it on RabbitEars. I contacted Falcon_77 and offered him hosting for it on RabbitEars. He initially declined the offer, but eventually realized that only AVSForum members could get to it, so he changed his mind and the rest is history. Falcon_77 is now an administrator on the site itself and provides lots of data and insight to me.
5. What’s been the most challanging aspect of gathering all of this information?
The most challenging aspect is just finding people who can provide the information I need. I have four contacts in the Washington, DC market who can provide me data I seek, but none in the nearby Harrisburg, PA market. I end up getting the latter’s data myself when I go through the area on family trips, but there are many areas where I cannot personally be involved. I still have large areas of the west where I don’t even have subchannel data.
I have no shortage of people willing to help send me program information and other data in most areas, but to find people with the hardware necessary to use TSReader is a much larger challenge. I’m coming to rely more and more on a few people who do a lot of traveling and bring the gear with them. It was this, plus his intense interest in the subject matter, that led me to bring Mr. Vrieze into the site as an administrator. He has so many contacts and does so much traveling around his part of the country that it became easier to just let him manage his own area.
You can see the large number of people who help me on the site’s Credits page. Not all have sent TSReader data, but most have. The site would not be where it is today without this large collection of people.
6. Your site does not use the Nielsen DMA rankings for its listings. Why is this, and what are the READS Ranks?
I had been using DMAs on the site for a while, but last October, Nielsen sent a cease and desist to Wikipedia over their similar use of the Nielsen data. Not wanting to be at the receiving end of a similar threat, Mr. Myers immediately got to work on a replacement system for market ranks for me. It originally had no name, but I came up with READS (RabbitEars Area Designation System) while bored one day. The system is based solely on over-the-air signal coverage, and has nothing to do with demographics or what people actually watch in a given area. This makes it very different from the Nielsen DMA system and hopefully protects me from similar action.
I’ve given Wikipedia full permission to use READS, and it is used in at least one area of that site. The READS Ranks are available for anyone to use so long as the site using it does not modify the ranks while keeping the READS name on it.
7. Alright, Trip, I’d like to turn now to your opinions on some issues related to digital television. What are your thoughts on how the government handled the digital transition?
I think the transition was handled very poorly. The coupon program was a good idea, but poorly implemented. The PSAs shown were inadequate and too broad in focus to actually help most people. Antenna issues were ignored until the last minute, people with weak signals were told the box would fix all their problems, and people were told that we were “switching” to digital so they assumed no digital signals were available prior to the transition date.
I often wish I had been in charge of it; I wouldn’t have allowed such a nightmare to occur. I’d have made sure the coupons covered the whole cost of the box, would have made sure antennas were included in the program, and I’d have picked a better test market. The first two issues are rather self-explanatory, but the third requires some explanation. Wilmington was a terrible choice for a test market because it was so perfect. It was a mostly flat market with co-located signals, all on UHF, and with tons of extra government assistance and attention. It was the ideal setup for digital TV.
When I heard the FCC was thinking about having a test market go all digital early, my suggestion had been Lexington, KY. It was effectively the “nightmare” market. It had signals in different locations at different strengths, had rolling hills, and had all UHF analogs but one digital each on low-VHF and upper-VHF. If you wanted problems, this would be the place to get them. The only possible issue there would be that nobody would have those VHF-only antennas that other markets had, but the VHF signals would have represented the same problem regardless since Lexington had been a UHF-only market.
8. In your view, was the postponement of the transition to June 12, 2009 necessary?
Yes and no. My opinion is that June 12 was a better date, but that it should have been June 12 from the beginning. Basically, the big argument I have is that people do not want to be up on their roofs screwing around with antennas in the middle of the winter.
However, once the February 17 date was set, moving it caused big problems. First of all, it contributed to consumer confusion. Had it been on June 12 in the first place, I’d have opposed a delay 100%. Second, it cost the stations. I know a number of stations that laid people off in order to afford the unbudgeted continuation of analog. It hurt the stations and the laid off employees. I also think the FCC was too aggressive in encouraging stations to stay on the air, but the argument the FCC used in doing so was at least understandable, given the rationale behind the delay.
9. There has been a lot of debate about the performance and power levels of VHF signals. With the transition, we’ve seen a lot of issues with those VHF signals. What is your take on the subject?
VHF as we knew it is dead, just that nobody realizes it yet.
The FCC saw what they wanted to see. The original plan was to make digital TV utilize channels 7-59, making use of 2-6 and 60-69 only during the transitional period. Broadcasters complained loudly about losing 2-6, and so the FCC conducted some testing in Charlotte, NC. This test involved a digital signal on channel 53 and another on channel 6, and generally showed positive results. However, this test like many others was very flawed in its assumption that viewers were all using outdoor antennas at 30 feet. On top of this, electrical noise wasn’t factored in at all, since the noisy appliances in homes weren’t replicated in these tests. But given the observed positive results, the FCC relented, taking 52-59 instead of 2-6.
Once WBBM-DT 3 in Chicago signed on and nobody could decode it, it suddenly became very obvious that low-VHF wouldn’t work, despite what the FCC test showed. Before WBBM’s results were publicized, I actually heard a number of stations say they wanted to return to their low-VHF frequency, but during the channel elections, most of those stations ended up keeping their UHF digital signals, or finding new frequencies if both frequencies were unavailable to them. The numbers speak for themselves; most stations wisely avoided low-VHF knowing that it would be a nightmare in terms of people trying to receive it. The low-VHF band is now largely vacant, and those that are present are mostly running gigantic amounts of power for the band.
The big issue I find is that with limited testing, people seemed to make the assumption that upper-VHF was the place to be. They said it didn’t have the noise and other issues of low-VHF, but retained the low power bills and propagation characteristics of VHF. This may be true on some level, but I don’t remember hearing about any major testing done. I could be wrong about that, but there were many upper-VHF digital signals on the air for a long time and they were often given very high power levels. WESH, WXIA, and WSMV are among many upper-VHF digital signals running a lot of power. At these power levels, reception isn’t completely simple like on UHF, but it’s reasonable to deal with. A lot of the problems we’re seeing now have to do with low power levels first and foremost. Yes, out in the fringes with a roof antenna, VHF reception is possible and quite easy, but on indoor antennas, noise levels are too high and antennas too small to deal with current power levels. On top of that, lightning makes a digital VHF signal unwatchable, and that’s when network TV reception is needed the most. I expect to see some news-heavy stations try to do something to mitigate this particular problem. Finally, if Mobile DTV takes off, then that will likely end the VHF band once and for all. Those little antennas likely will not do much at all, but they do more with UHF than with upper-VHF.
I think that ultimately stations are going to decide to move up to UHF in some places, and the ones that remain on VHF will get large power increases. I’m tracking these changes as they happen on my VHF Nightmares page, and hopefully we’ll see more movement in coming weeks and months. I would hope that the FCC will disallow “lone VHF” markets where all the stations are UHF except one on VHF, but I’m not betting on it. Low-VHF will probably be mostly abandoned even by the stations that are currently still on it, especially since Mobile DTV receivers will not tune it.
The transition is not yet over, and it will be quite some time before it’s all sorted out.
10. Given that you talk a lot about VHF power levels, have any UHF stations underestimated broadcast power?
I think that in general, the UHF stations are pretty much on target. UHF stations are largely correct in their power levels. Notable exceptions are Barrington’s smaller markets (KTVO, WLUC, etc) and SagamoreHill (WNCF, WBMM, etc). There may be more I cannot think of, but otherwise, many stations chose to maximize power and are pretty much where they should be or have permits to install more equipment to get to where they should be.
11. I have noticed the addition of Mobile DTV broadcast listings within certain markets on rabbitears.info. Do you see this technology taking off here in the US like it has in Japan and South Korea?
I’m not really sure. Those nations have much higher population densities and thus generally live in smaller homes and spend more time mobile. There’s an argument that can be made for why mobile TV services work well there. But the issue is that we don’t know what’s going on here in the US yet. Currently, mobile TV services are limited to for-pay services that require $10-$20 per month to watch TV on their phones. It seems that people generally don’t want to pay for that, which is understandable. The question is, will people use a free, ad-supported service on their phones? That’s less clear.
Now I’ve heard a lot of people say that they wouldn’t, but most of that demographic is the same one that doesn’t find much use for cell phones. They’re not the target audience. The target audience is younger viewers who almost live on their cell phones, and it’s hard to predict what they’ll do. They like what they like and there’s really no rhyme or reason to it sometimes.
The bigger problem that I see is the problem of whether or not cell phone companies will actually offer the service. I have yet to hear of any plans to make phones available in that way. I know they’re talking about offering it in laptops and netbooks, and in the form of USB add-ons, but that’s not really as portable as a cell phone or a smartphone, and if that’s the only way the service will be available, it will be seriously crippled.
If the content is compelling, cell phone companies actually offer phones with the service, and viral marketing can take hold, there’s definitely a chance that Mobile DTV can work.
12. We’ve reached the end of the questions, but I have just one more for you. Are there any future plans to expand your website or provide additional information?
Absolutely. I’ve got a list of things I want to work on and implement in the site, and a lot of recent additions. Just recently, I added more technical data to the Technical Data section, including transmitter power output, antenna system gain, and antenna height above ground level. Another new feature which is less obvious is an HAAT calculator of sorts. In the FCC database, low-powered and Class A stations do not have to give a Height Above Average Terrain (HAAT) number, even though this is the number the FCC generally uses with full-service stations to figure out coverage. I’ve added calculations such that if a low-powered or Class A station is on the same tower as a full-service station, it will find the difference between the AGL numbers and then subtract that from the full-service station’s HAAT in order to determine the LP/CA station’s HAAT.
I have a nifty To-Do List which shows some of the things I have in mind. Just because something’s not listed there doesn’t mean it won’t be done–that extra information I mentioned was added on a whim one day while bored.
The top priority overall is the “DX Tool” for which AVSForum member and DTVUSAForum moderator Piggie is my beta tester. This is a tool that will allow people to enter in their local reception as well as any DX they encounter. This data, conversely, can be searched by station and used to determine real-world accounts of station coverage areas. I’ve got most of the display part of it handled; that is, once the data is entered, it displays the way I want it. I’m just struggling with the data-entry side of it. It has to be user-friendly, but very accurate, and it has to be flawless in operation. Piggie recently discovered a very big bug that allowed stations to be entered and then disappear entirely, and I have to go over it with a fine-toothed comb and figure all that out. I don’t have an estimated launch date at this point, though I do plan to finish it at some point.
Other interesting notes on that page, I want to add TSIDs to the listing. A TSID is a unique ID that a station is supposed to transmit in its signal, and there are some computer-based tuning programs which require TSIDs to be entered, thus why I want to add it. The only problem is that there’s already a field for it in the FCC database, it’s just not populated with data. I have this feeling that the moment I finish adding in TSIDs on my own, suddenly the FCC database will populate and I’ll have wasted all that effort.
Creating a page for the Canadian Letter of Understanding shouldn’t be hard, since there’s nothing automated that requires running to my site’s database, it’s just going to be tedious. The LOU is basically a letter showing what allotments the US and Canada have agreed are available on each side of the border, and is good for understanding why some stations do what they do in terms of channel choices. I may not even make a page for it and just link off to the PDF, but I’d prefer to give some explanation and make it somewhat easier for non-engineers to deal with and understand.
I have high hopes that I will continue to be able to add features to RabbitEars and make it ever more useful. I always love hearing from people, and though I can’t guarantee I’ll answer every message that comes to me, I certainly try, even if I’m very delayed in doing so. And I always take suggestions for new features, so if someone sends me an e-mail or otherwise sends a message to me with suggestions for features or changes, I take it under consideration, and sometimes I even add things right away if I see value in them and they’re relatively simple to implement.
I would like to thank Jay from DTVUSAForum for giving me the chance to speak about the site and the various issues facing digital TV.
Again, many thanks to Trip for this interview and his contributions here at the forum. Please visit his website at RabbitEars.Info.