Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cable's Lack Of Interest In HDTV

2007 was the year the government, broadcasters, and equipment manufacturers finally began to get serious about the February, 2009 transition to digital television.

The first step was setting the date of February 17, 2009 in essential stone for the transition, with the Congress fending off a last attempt to delay the date early in the year.

The number of cheap analog-only TV's available for sale has dropped at the retail level, with more digital-ready sets at the ready. And the retail push for HDTV has been generating more interest in large-size screens good for movies and sports programs.

Strangely on the sidelines have been most of America's Cable companies, who have taken the position that they will be the last to the HDTV table in any wholesale sense. Cable has apparently decided it will be more profitable to continue to limit video capacity and wait for the final transition than add capacity, especially to aid broadcasters.

Cable has instead concentrated much of its development in the area of Internet access and telephone service, which require less ongoing investment and no programming negotiations, with cable serving as little more than a bandwidth provider.

Cable's seeming lack of interest in HDTV has opened up a major window for satellite television, which not long ago was teetering on the brink of disaster. Many of cable's most profitable customers have left for the dish, even with its numerous weather and service problems, in order to try and get a broader range of high-definition programming.

Cable's apparent willingness to let these customers go is a strange one, but a likely strategy is becoming apparent in doing so.

In largely ignoring HDTV, Cable can maintain its present amounts of video bandwidth and limit the development of additional channels of programming that are viable enough to either compete for advertising or demand significant rights fees.

As America's cable companies continue to own part or all of dozens of the most popular cable networks, limiting video bandwidth protects cable-owned network audiences from dilution by additional significant program sources.

By not carrying both the HDTV and analog signals of broadcasters, cable also has inhibited the development of local broadcasting's HDTV audience, as well as any additional revenues broadcasters have hoped to develop from using their FCC assigned bandwidth in additional ways, including the provision of Internet access.

This has left broadcasters absorbing many millions of dollars of costs at each station with essentially no growth in revenue from digital television to support it. Which in turn helps local cable compete better for advertising against weaker broadcasters.

Cable also sees an opportunity to drive penetration into the last of America's broadcast-only households, as analog-only sets become dark in February, 2009. After that date they will either require a converter, or a cable box. Cable will be more than happy to supply the latter, and you can expect a major push to do so in 2008.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the 5-4 decision in "Turner Broadcasting System vs. FCC" that cable functioned in many respects as a vertically integrated monopoly. I served as the lead expert witness for the winning government and broadcasters in that case, and generated more than 100,000 pages of original research.

In watching Cable handle the transition to digital television, it's becoming apparent that the same thinking present ten years ago is still largely controlling the cable industry today. Cable wants to continue to control programming access to America's homes while expanding its reach into non-video markets.

This behavior portends yet another round of regulatory and judicial fights, which the Cable industry likely thinks it can win in this go-round, as the Court has become even more conservative.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Essential Utilities Help Make PC's More Useful

Most of today's new computers come with a minimal software load and a lot of junk and trialware. One of the first things many users have to do is get rid of all the trialware and add the programs needed to make PC's more productive.

Here are some of my current recommendations, nearly all of which I install on the systems I set up and service.

Adobe Reader 8 – Adobe's free Reader software (formerly Acrobat Reader) has been around for years as the standard for reading web-friendly PDF documents. The latest version of Reader, although a somewhat large download (about 22MB) contains some useful added features including the ability to fill out forms online (if properly set up and offered). You can download Reader at

There are also Web sites available if you need to create your own PDF documents, including, which can create or convert to PDF for free online in only a few minutes.

7-Zip – At some point nearly everyone will have a need to create a compressed Zip file containing several pictures or documents. These files can be handy for e-mail or distribution of multiple documents.

There are a number of well-known Zip applications around such as WinZip, but I've found the freeware Z-Zip works just as well, is smaller, and doesn't contain any ads or other annoyances. You can get it free at 7-Zip also opens compressed files in multiple formats, and can be especially handy for those exchanging files with Mac users.

Weatherbug – Although there are a number of system tray weather applications out there, Weatherbug continues to offer the best information in the easiest to use interface.

Weatherbug installs in your system tray and provides instant access to temperature, forecast and emergency bulletins on a 24/7 basis. It's emergency bulletin handling is most useful, as it can instantly alert you to any weather bulletins in your specific area, and offers better alert targeting than conventional weather radios.

The free version of Weatherbug requires you select an ad sponsor from time to time, but it's a small price to pay for a highly useful freeware application. You can get it at

IObit Smart Defrag – One of the most common problems on PC's is fragmentation of data on hard drives. Although Windows contains a disk defragmenter, it cannot easily be set to run automatically or in the background when the system is idle.

Iobit's Smart Defrag freewware does that, allowing for regular scheduled complete defrags on multiple drives, as well as automatic defragging in the background of disk data, Regular disk defragmentation can speed PC performance and reduce wear and tear on hard drives. You can get Iobit Smart Defrag at

CleanCache 3.5 – Although its developer is no longer in business, this handy utility is still available to get rid of all kinds of cached, temp and history files.

Setup is fairly easy, and CleanCache works on multiple browsers such as Explorer, Firefox and Opera at the same time. You can also set it to clear your Internet history, temp files, and other material on your drive that's not needed. One the program is configured, you can open and run a complete cleanup in only one click. You can get CleanCache through several major file services including

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Best High-Tech Gift Bets For 2007

It's holiday gift-giving season again, and there are plenty of choices this year for those looking for electronics and other high-tech gifts. Retailers are reporting electronics are some of this year's hottest sellers, so any of the choices below are likely a good bet.

Plasma HDTV's – Plasma televisions used to be reserved for those with near-unlimited budgets when making the switch to digital television. However, the past year has seen a plunge in the price of plasma televisions to levels much closer to their DLP and LCD competitors. Even in larger sizes, plasma televisions are now usually only a small premium, and the quality of pictures is often worth it.

DLP sets are also a good choice, but will eventually require an expensive projection bulb replacement that cannot be avoided. I recommend when buying any set to be sure it displays native 1080i resolution, the maximum digital standard that will be used by the broadcasting industry for the foreseeable future.

Satellite HDTV – America's cable companies have often been woefully slow to offer many HDTV choices, and have sometimes charged a hefty premium for even a few channels. This has opened the door for DBS satellite carriers to gain an unprecedented foothold in delivering digital television services.

Even with a February 2009 switch to fully digital television on the horizon, the only way most consumers can get much full digital television is via DBS. Both DirecTV and Dish Network now claim to offer more than 70 channels of HD programming, with dozens more on the way.

Upconverting DVD Players – Although competition is often healthy in high-tech areas, occasionally it leads to competitive problems where differing formats can lead to headaches for the consumer.

Such is the case with high-definition DVD systems, where the competing Blu-Ray and HD formats have reached a near-stalemate in offering true high-definition video, with no resolution likely in the near-term future. That leaves movie buffs having to buy multiple DVD playback systems or very expensive dual-format players that can handle both systems.

A better choice for now for many will be an upconverting DVD player.. These DVD players can electronically scale standard DVD's to HDTV monitors, and offer an improvement over standard DVD players at only a small premium in cost. Prices in the last year have fallen to well under $100 in many cases for upconverting DVD players, in some cases less than $50. They are a good choice to go with that new HDTV set.

iTunes Gift Cards – It seems nearly every teen, and many adults, have an iPod. As such, gift cards for the iTunes music service are often a well-appreciated gift. Available at most major retailers and in a variety of denominations, these cards offer access to the millions of songs and videos contained in the iTunes library.

Flash Memory Cards – Another item that has seen a precipitous price drop in the past year are flash memory cards used in digital cameras and phones. These cards can store thousands of pictures and songs, and a 2GB card has now dropped to under $30 in most cases.

Be sure you know what format the phone or digital camera takes from the many possible choices, or just buy a gift card instead to be sure the right one is chosen.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at