BY VINCENT NOVAK
I worked as an electronic journalism editor and television broadcast engineer for 27 years. I’d like to share some thoughts and insights about our current Cablevision service here and future expectations.
The bridge has been built. Not on Route 114. It is the bridge that gets us on to the information highway. How many of us can travel on this bridge at the same time, how fast we can go and how much of a load we can carry back and forth is determined by the bridge keeper, Cablevision.
We all depend more and more on this bridge for telephone, television and Internet. Many of us have VoIP (Internet) telephone as part of our cable TV package. We surf the web at the drop of a hat. Businesses and our government couldn’t fully function without the Internet. Our medical center will be able to download high-resolution X-ray and CAT scan images to better serve patients. School kids can get intuitive online lessons that teach the way that they can learn. We download whole books and read newspapers via the Internet. We can listen to WLNG or watch a Town Board meeting from almost any place in the world.
Cable TV, as we know it, will soon give way to IPTV, (Internet television) and more VOD (video on demand). Most importantly, the Internet provides Real Time HD-3D interactive multiplayer video gaming. This will all require much larger data streams to be delivered to and sent by all of us, all at the same time.
Can the bridge support the huge increase in traffic now, 10 years from now, and when the summer people show up? Or will we have digital gridlock and computer crashes at peak hours of use? It’s all about bandwidth.
REALITY (CABLE) TV:
Although it works just OK now, most of the time, we have become somewhat complacent about TV and Internet problems. Our Cablevision bridge is antiquated. It was originally designed to distribute analog TV channels within a portion of the RF (radio frequency) spectrum. Several decades ago, this “bridge” was retrofitted to carry telephone and Internet services, when the Internet was little more than email. More recently, it was again modified to transport digital TV signals as well. This bridge, or rather a cable TV/ISP distribution system, seems physically old and weak. The coaxial cable that runs around the Rock is technically “leaky” and is susceptible to RF noise, rendering parts of the RF spectrum unusable.
In other words, it is inefficient, obsolete technology and may not be suitable for our future bandwidth needs. The coaxial cable needs to be replaced by a state-of-the-art fiber cable, such as what Verizon FiOS uses. A fiber cable of the same size can provide much more bandwidth within the visible light spectrum than it uses. This means many more real HDTV channels, more phone circuits and much faster Internet uploads and downloads. Fiber technology is not exclusive to Verizon FiOS. Anyone, including Cablevision, can buy it and install it.
STREETS LINED WITH FIBER
When we replace the dirty old copper co-ax cable with shiny new fiber cable, we should bury it! Many municipalities have realized that the space under their roadways is a valuable resource. Let’s trench the entire length of Route 114 and drop the Cablevision fiber cable into it. And throw in the LIPA power line too. (You cannot run primary AC power and copper signal cables alongside each other. The power cable will interfere with the copper signal cable. This is not a problem with a fiber cable). We are not digging the Panama Canal here. Trenching Route 114 is not impossible. We can rent this space to the utility and make it part of the franchise deal.
When the next storm hits the Rock, most of our business and government buildings on Route 114 would stay up and running, with cables underground instead of being broken and lying on top of it. If we trenched the rest of Shelter Island, it might be considered a long-term infrastructure project and qualify for some Obama federal funding. It would also provide a good number of well paying jobs for a long time. We could also eventually get rid of all those ugly telephone poles to boot.
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
Have you ever watched a TV show that starts to freeze frames, drops lines or sound, pixelates or goes out of lip sync? It happens all the time. It is usually because of too much encoding and signal compression. The signal is compressed to reduce the amount of bandwidth required to transmit the TV channel to your cable box, which is the decoder or expander. The more signal compression, the less bandwidth needed per channel, which means that more channels can be squeezed into the limited amount of RF spectrum that Cablevision is allowed to use.
Cable boxes used to be simple TV tuners that descrambled the analog signal and converted it to TV channel 3 for your old VHS VCR or TV set. Our digital cable boxes are not only tuners and converters but also computers. It takes time and CPU processing power to properly decode a highly compressed signal. A sports program is more difficult to decode than a talking head news show. The faster action in the picture of the sports show makes the signal more complex and requires more processing than the talking heads that hardly move at all.
If your box cannot decode properly, the picture will freeze or breakup or lose lip-sync. When enough viewers call Cablevision and complain about the same TV channel, Cablevision can increase the bandwidth and decrease the amount of compression for that channel, thus fixing the problem. However, they must take bandwidth away from another channel or reduce your Internet service.
If an HDTV channel is compressed too much, it will still have 1080i lines when decoded but it might have lip-sync delay and digital artifacts (noise) in the picture when viewed. The TV will technically see it as HD but the overall picture quality might suffer. Again, it’s all about available bandwidth. The cable TV box is the last link in the chain. We need boxes that decode better, boot faster and change channels quicker. Cablevision needs to ensure that we have the most current and best box technology to be had.
THINKING INSIDE OF THE BOX
One more thing about cable boxes. Even when you turn it off, it is still on. Touch it in the morning and you will see that it is warm after being “off” all night. It is the same as paying LIPA to keep a 60 or 80 watt light bulb on all day and night. Cablevision uploads scheduling information to the box at night. It can also download information about you to Cablevision’s servers. I don’t know what, if any, data Cablevision downloads. Other cable companies record what channels, programs and commercials you watch, for how long and at what point you change the channel. They know when you mute the sound. They know when you are sleeping and they know when you’re awake. Couple this with the financial and other information that they already have on you. It is what is known as “behavioral marketing” so that they can target you with specific commercials. We should be told if Cablevision is collecting such data and have the ability to opt out.
HIGH FIVE THE WI-FI
While we are at it, how about Cablevision making the entire Island a free Wi-Fi hot spot, as a public service? While this would be good for all of us, it would be great for Island businesses and visitors. Imagine a day tripper or weekender getting their ferry receipt and the message printed on the back is “Welcome. Please go to shelterislandreporter.com, timesreview.com or shelterislandchamber.org for links to lodging, restaurants, public toilets, dog parks and real estate listings.” Visitors will spend less time getting lost and trying figure out where what is. Instead, they will enjoy the Island and have more time to spend their money here.
POWER TO THE PUBLIC
Cablevision can provide a public access channel in addition to the government access channel 22 that we now have: that is, if we request it. They will also provide some basic equipment and training. A public channel could broadcast local sporting events, Sunday morning religious services, high school plays and so on. We certainly have enough creative people here to fill the broadcast day. There is a bill (A03534) in Albany that requires towns to have a Citizen’s Cable Franchise committee. The Town Board should see if the community has any interest in any of this.
MONEY FOR NOTHING
Our Town Board is looking forward to an increase in the amount of money that is kicked back to the town for a 10-year franchise agreement. This will give Cablevision the right to provide TV, telephone and broadband Internet service with little or no competition. That also means that they have no incentive to upgrade and improve our services, as we have seen for the last several decades. At the time municipalities began granting long-term utility franchises, technology evolved slowly. Now technology innovates from day to day. We need Cablevision to contractually commit to a constantly changing technological environment. Or else we should not commit to a 10-year contract.
WE ARE THE PHONE COMPANY!
Shelter Island was the last town in the state to still have a manual telephone switchboard operator and party lines in 1966. Dial tone telephones were a big deal when they finally reached the Rock. We cannot afford to be left behind in the digital age. We pay a lot of money each month for that one little cable to come into our homes. Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.
The Town Board should consider employing a telecommunications consultant who can expertly project and quantify our needs over the next 10 years. Then we can negotiate with Cablevision using facts and hard numbers. This is also the time to see if other TV/ISP companies are interested in serving us. We might all get a better deal. But it’s not only about dollars and cents. The future quality and dependability of our TV, Internet and phone services depends on what is agreed to now.
Will Cablevision promise the following over the next 10 years?
• True HDTV quality on every HD channel at all hours.
• Faster ISP capabilities for large file uploads and downloads for all customers, all of the time.
• Dependable high quality IPTV and VOD, as it gains in popularity, for all customers at anytime, all of the time.
• Improved VoIP telephone dependability and quality.
• A total system overhaul and upgrade to include a true state-of-the-art high-speed broadband distribution system and improved cable boxes, as they become available.
• Freeze our rates that are already too high for at least the next five years. A limited increase after five years, but only if Cablevision keeps up with our needs.
We need Cablevision to invest in Shelter Island!