A moderately successful fix for Digital TV reception woes

Since it became the only way to watch local, over-the-air TV in many Canadian cities in 2011, people have been bedevilled by the difficulties of receiving digital TV signals, particularly those operating on lower VHF-band frequencies. This problem will remain as “cord cutters” continue to opt for free-of-charge over-the-air reception of their local stations in high definition as an alternative to expensive cable bills.

When Winnipeg local television went digital in 2011, several stations moved to higher UHF frequencies while others remained on their originally assigned frequencies:

  • CBWFT (SRC) moved from VHF channel 3 to UHF channel 51. Continues to appear as “channel 3-1” on digital TV.

  • CBWT (CBC) moved from VHF channel 6 to UHF channel 27. Continues to appear as “channel 6-1” on digital TV.

  • CKY (CTV) remained on VHF channel 7. Appears as “channel 7-1” on digital TV.

  • CKND (Global) moved from VHF channel 9 to UHF channel 40. Continues to appear as “channel 9-1” (high definition) and “channel 9-2” (standard definition) on digital TV.

  • CHMI (Citytv) remained on VHF channel 13. Appears as “channel 13-1” on digital TV.

  • CIIT (Hope TV) remained on UHF channel 35. Appears as “channel 35-1” on digital TV.

Your biggest reception problems are going to be with CTV and Citytv, both of which remained on the VHF band. This band is vulnerable to problems for several reasons, including:

  • Many “HDTV” antennas being optimized for higher UHF frequencies.

  • Interference from FM stations, which can create harmonic or “ghost” signals at two times their normal frequencies. Since FM stations normally operate on 88 to 108 MHz, their harmonics appear between 176 and 216 MHz — the same frequencies that TV channels 7 to 13 operate on. These harmonics will be particularly strong in south Winnipeg, closer to the towers most FM stations originate their signals from.

  • Lower signal intensities, as CTV and Citytv operate from towers located 35 and 45 kilometres from central Winnipeg, respectively. The other stations operate from atop the Portage and Main office towers, except for Hope TV, which operates from a tower on the southern outskirts of Winnipeg.

Nevertheless, I’ve been able to figure out a way to get fairly decent reception of all Winnipeg stations, except for Citytv, which remains unreliable. Here’s how:

Start with two “rubber duck” antennas. These are old radio scanner antennas supposedly designed to cover both the VHF and UHF bands. They seem to do a decent enough job anyway. With Radio Shack being nothing more than a memory now, you might need to order these online.


Such antennas typically attach to BNC ports, while TV antennas usually attach to coaxial ports. You’ll need to obtain two BNC-to-coaxial adapters.


Next, get yourself a signal splitter/combiner like this one. Again, you might need to order one online if you can’t get one at The Source or another electronics store.


Finally, you’ll need a stretch of coaxial cable about two metres (6.5 feet) long. Shorter lengths might prevent you from ideally positioning your antenna, while longer lengths might not only cost you more money, but also result in a weaker signal reaching your TV. Coaxial cables marked RF-9913, RF-9914, RG-11 or RG-6 offer the best signal retention between antenna and TV, while cables marked RG-213, RG-8X, RG-58 or RG-174 are more likely to see signals weaken the further they travel from the antenna to the TV. But if you keep cable lengths down to about two metres or less, you won’t lose too much signal in any case.


Assemble all your bits and pieces together like this. Plug the opposite end of the coaxial cable into the TV.


I find that reception tends to be best when the antenna is positioned behind or under heavy furniture, like the entertainment centre housing the TV, and when the cable is touching the wall. I’m not sure why this is: perhaps this gets rid of interference somehow, or perhaps there’s less multi-path interference caused by signals reverberating off walls and furniture. (Pardon the mess — this is a difficult area to clean.)


Scan for channels according to the instructions appropriate to your own TV.


Try jiggling and repositioning both the cable and the antenna until you get good reception on channel 7, which should be the stronger of the two VHF signals in Winnipeg as they operate at about three times as much power (in kilowatts) as channel 13 does.


Channel 13 remains hit-or-miss. On New Years’ Day, things were working out well enough.


If you live in Winnipeg, you should have no problem receiving the UHF stations even if they are still listed according to their lower pre-digital channels (as is the case with CKND), as their signals are very strong and UHF lacks the interference that messes up VHF digital signals.


What would Jesus do if he were running CIIT, a.k.a. Hope TV? He’d do better than this, in terms of both programming and picture. Even YouTube part-time filmmakers like Dan Bell and Bright Sun Films have more professional looking feeds than this CRTC-licenced channel. If anyone at Hope TV, a.k.a. ZoomerMedia, is reading this, please bring back the classic shows from the Joy TV era.


From the earliest days of television, there has been interest in picking up American TV signals. The only one that you have a faint hope of receiving in Winnipeg is Fox affiliate KNRR channel 12-1, and its Antenna TV classic comedy subchannel on channel 12-2, which originates from a tower near Pembina, N.D. The station operates at fairly low power, so your only hope of reliable reception is by using a high-gain, south-facing rooftop antenna, preferably above the tree line. Other American stations are too far south to be received in Winnipeg, except under unusual atmospheric conditions.

Why a “Netflix Tax”, in the form of GST, might be coming no matter who becomes Prime Minister

A Conservative Party video suggests Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (left) and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (right) are eager to impose a "Netflix Tax". But does the application of GST, which the incumbent government expressed interest in, count?

A Conservative Party video suggests Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (left) and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (right) are eager to impose a “Netflix Tax”. But does the application of GST, which the incumbent government expressed interest in, count?

During an election campaign, one gets used to hearing all kinds of absurd, over-the-top rhetoric from the professional manipulators otherwise known as party leaders and their campaign staffs.  So, when Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper vowed on the campaign trail this past week to block Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair from imposing a “Netflix tax”, it was fairly easy to brush it off initially as yet another bit of daft nonsense one can expect from a mid-summer election campaign.

Out of curiosity, though, I decided to look up “Netflix Tax” on Google to see if any other jurisdiction had ever imposed one. Sure enough, just last month, the City of Chicago announced a nine-percent tax on “electronically delivered amusements” that many are referring to as a “Netflix Tax”. It comes into effect Sept. 1, and is intended to improve the dreadful state of the city’s finances.

Then another case caught my eye, this one from Australia, whose conservative Liberal-National governments under prime ministers John Howard (1996-2007) and Tony Abbott (2013-present) have long been a source of ideas and advice for the Conservative Party here in Canada.

This past May, the Australian federal treasurer, Joe Hockey — a man whose name alone would make him a star here in hockey-mad Canada — announced that Australians will need to begin paying 10-percent GST on international digital purchases beginning in 2017. As the Australian media company News Limited reported:

The move, dubbed the “Netflix tax,” would see the GST expanded to cover digital purchases from overseas companies, potentially raising the price of Amazon e-books, Steam online games, Tidal music subscriptions, and apps from Microsoft and BlackBerry by 10 per cent.

The scheme would not begin until July 2017, however, and would not affect international companies already collecting the GST from Australian consumers, including Apple and Spotify.

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey said the move would “level the playing field” for Australia-based businesses delivering digital content.

“It is unfair that overseas-based business selling services into Australia may not charge GST when local businesses have to charge GST,” Mr Hockey said.

“A local business that employs Australians, pays rent in Australia, pays tax in Australia, and helps build our economy is disadvantaged by the current system.”

Similar issues have been raised here in Canada in the recent past. The Canadian government’s own 2014 Budget pledged to look into “cross-border tax integrity issues, such as ensuring the effective collection of sales tax on e-commerce sales to Canadians by foreign-based vendors.”

As the Globe and Mail reported in January 2015, one of the vendors that could be among the targets of this 2014 budgetary vow could be Netflix, which officially is not “carrying on business” in Canada and is therefore not compelled to collect GST.

But there is a difference between not being required to collect GST and being GST-free. As the Globe and Mail report went on to note:

In theory, when foreign companies don’t charge sales tax, it is up to each consumer to self-report digital purchases from abroad and pay HST or GST, though virtually no one does.

“These digital supplies are already taxable,” Rogers writes in a submission to government, decrying “the competitive disadvantage in the digital economy for Canadian domestic suppliers which must charge GST/HST to Canadian consumers.” Rogers, for example, recently launched a streaming service called Shomi, which costs $8.99 a month, plus tax.

And it is an idea that has had its fans within the incumbent government:

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development agrees the best solution is to compel companies to register and collect sales taxes in the countries where they make sales. Such measures are part of a larger OECD tax plan presented to G20 finance ministers in the summer of 2013, aimed at combatting tax-base erosion and profit-shifting.

In Canada, the notion of taxing digital sales from abroad gained traction with the government in the fall of 2013, under then-finance minister Jim Flaherty. But it burst onto the European Union’s agenda more than a decade earlier over fears that companies might move offshore to stay competitive.

The notion of expanding GST to include digital services such as Netflix is not necessarily a bad one. Like many affluent nations, Canada has a growing population of pensioners, in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, who will become more reliant on costly government services at the same time as their income tax and sales tax payments drop significantly.

For instance, Statistics Canada data shows that in households where the key financial decision-maker was between the ages of 55 and 64, the average household income taxes paid were $16,189 in 2013. In households where the key financial decision-maker was aged 65 or older: just $8,097.

Other wholly or partially taxable household expenditures that were, on average, more than $1,000 lower in 2013 among the 65-plus group than they were among the 55-to-64 group: total food expenditures (-$1,668), shelter (-$3,838), household operations (-$1,028), clothing and accessories (-$1,286), transportation (-$4,624), recreation (-$1,483) and education (-$1,088). Overall, total household consumption was on average $16,810 lower among the households where the key financial decision maker was aged 65-plus than it was when that decision-maker was aged 55 to 64.

If Canada is going to have a prosperous economy in the future, it also needs a healthy and well-educated workforce; it needs transportation systems that gets goods to market and both imports and exports to where they need to go promptly; it needs a border that is secure against various threats, but at the same time not delaying harmless people or goods needlessly; it needs local roads and public transit systems that get employees to and from work and customers to and from businesses; and it needs places where people can leave their children while they work, even if this is evening or weekend work. All of that is going to require government spending to at least some degree.

At the same time, as the fierce response to even a modest one-point rise in the Manitoba provincial sales tax in 2013 showed, there are high political costs to be paid for raising the rates that show up on the sales receipt.

Therefore, much like the airlines, governments have high fixed costs and yet struggle to exert pricing power. Thus the path of least resistance to raising the revenue that is needed to pay the bills for the services that people won’t tolerate being deprived of is to move sideways instead of tackling the issue head-on: by eliminating exemptions and giveaways, charging more fines, unbundling the core product, packing people more tightly into existing space, and replacing less complicated forms of human labour with technology wherever possible.

As the population ages, making the revenues add up to what is needed to pay for the bills that Canadian governments cannot easily get out of paying will only get more difficult. Whether this October’s election produces a Prime Minister Harper, a Prime Minister Mulcair or a Prime Minister Trudeau — or, though the odds are extremely long, a Prime Minister May —  the urge to apply GST to Netflix and other foreign-based digital services might be virtually impossible to resist.

Pairing option brings YouTube to your regular TV

La Nipote

From the 1974 Italian comedy “La Nipote”. If the icon in the lower right hand corner is present, it will be possible to send the video straight from your computer or wireless device to your TV set. (Click to enlarge.)

If the broadcast regulators at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) are worried about the impact of unregulated Internet video streams on the Canadian broadcasting system, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais wasn’t showing much of that chagrin when he spoke to the Vancouver Board of Trade earlier today.

“Despite the mountain of media stories about Netflix, and Shomi, and HBO online, and CBS online and Bell’s Project Latte, let’s not lose sight of the fact that about 60% of Canadians do not stream TV programming,” Blais told the audience today. “Canadians still watch on average 28 hours of traditional TV a week.  And the hours of viewing to online video services, including cute kittens on YouTube, is only 1.9 hours per week.”

But YouTube is interested in making its vast online video library part of your regular prime-time viewing.

The traditional living room TV set was a large, heavy box that could only use one video source at a time. Today’s newest TV sets are relatively lightweight panels that can alternate between a cable or satellite connection, free over-the-air digital TV (which offers superior picture quality), HDMI computer connections, USB drives and Wi-Fi — all using just one remote control.

These so-called “Smart TVs” are gaining in popularity. A 2013 forecast expected worldwide Smart TV shipments to reach 141 million units in 2015, up from 66 million in 2012.

These TVs often include self-updating software that downloads apps you can use to access streaming video services. YouTube, BBC News and TED offer free access to their services; while the Cineplex Store and Netflix offer pay-TV options.

One of the particularly handy features of the YouTube app is that, if your computer and your TV both use Wi-Fi, you can now easily send any videos you find on your computer straight through to the TV set.

Here’s how it works (Wi-Fi enabled Smart TV required):

  • Open the YouTube app on your Smart TV, and look for the Settings option.
  • Look for the “Pair Device” option on the TV screen.
  • On your laptop or wireless device, go to youtube.com/pair
  • By this time, there should be a 12-digit code on your TV screen. Back on your laptop or wireless device, enter this code in the “Enter pairing code” field, and wait for the connection to be made.
  • Start the video on your computer and, when prompted, choose the “Play on your TV” option. Or, look for the play-on-TV option in the lower right hand corner of the video.

As long as you are signed in to YouTube when you do the setup above, the two systems should be able to communicate with each other again in the future. If not, repeat these steps

This brings the whole YouTube video library to your living room TV, and gives you the freedom to “geek out” on whatever interests you: full ABC coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential election, silent movies from the ’20s or racy Italian comedies from the ’70s, video compilations of drunken politicians, the evening news from Ghana or even some historical Winnipeg TV clips courtesy of RetroWinnipeg, drbpony and this site.

Why online voting is not like online banking

A security analysis of Estonia's online voting system found, among other things, that Wi-Fi credentials had been posted on a wall opposite a video camera. (See "Security Analysis of the Estonian Internet Voting System" link below.)

A security analysis of Estonia’s online voting system found, among other things, that Wi-Fi credentials had been posted on a wall opposite a video camera. (See “Security Analysis of the Estonian Internet Voting System” link below.)

No sooner had Winnipeggers gone to the polls on Oct. 22 to elect a new mayor and city council than did demands begin to emerge for the whole voting process to be moved online — as is starting to become traditional after just about any election.

Often, the comparison to online banking is made. If people can use the Internet to shift thousands of dollars around in the comfort of their homes, why can’t they use the Internet to choose their councillors, mayors, school board trustees, MLAs and MPs while clad only in their underwear?

This question was effectively responded to in a 2011 Elections B.C. discussion paper on Internet Voting.

In Section 3.0 of the paper, Elections B.C. includes a comment that might come as a slight shock to online banking users. “Online banking was not introduced with the expectation that it would be a fraud-proof means of conducting banking transactions,” the report says.

“The business case for online banking rests on the assumption that the degree of fraud is off-set by reduced operating costs and convenience benefits to clients.”

In short, a bit of fraud here and there is essentially a cost of doing business — something that would not (or at least should not) be tolerated from any elections agency.

Service reliability is also critical. “If an Internet banking service is unavailable, clients can simply try again later,” the report notes. “In the case of an election, a service disruption for any number of reasons (e.g. denial of service attack, hacking, software bug or hardware malfunction, power or network outage) could disenfranchise voters by delaying or invalidating their votes.”

Elections and banking transactions are also subject to completely different kinds of accountability standards.

“Banking transactions are identifiable from end-to-end. They require user authentication through passwords and PINs and the client’s identity follows the transaction through to its completion.”

By contrast, “a voting transaction must begin by authenticating the identity of the voter to confirm their eligibility,” the report notes.

“To preserve secrecy, the vote transaction must then be disassociated from the voter’s identity . . . This [secrecy requirement] makes it much harder to protect the system against fraud and to detect fraud that has occurred.”

“If evidence of tampering with an Internet vote comes to light, there is no ‘before state’ to return to in order to resolve the issue. By contrast, in the existing voting system, ambiguous results are resolved by having voter-marked and verified ballots reconsidered and counted again by another individual, such as a judge.”

The report also goes on to note other more obvious differences between online banking and online voting, such as that online voting would provide easy opportunity for the open buying and selling of votes, and would shift voting activity away from the scrutineers and election workers who are tasked with ensuring that the entire voting process is beyond reproach.

So let’s put to rest the argument that being able to bank online is any indication that being able to vote online is a good idea. They are two totally different processes held up to radically different standards.

Those with a further interest in this topic might enjoy reading:

  • Security Analysis of the Estonian Internet Voting System, which found stunning deficiencies in that country’s online voting system, such as that “operators used a PC containing other software, including PokerStars.ee, to build the official voting client for distribution” and that “on occasion the operators appeared to be deliberately evading us.”
  • Online Voting: Rewards and Risks, produced by the Atlantic Council in cooperation with Intel Security and McAfee. This report includes the caution that “the twin goals of anonymity and verifiability within an online voting system are largely incompatible with current technologies,” and that, “unlike paper ballots, electronic votes cannot be ‘rolled back’ or easily recounted” in the event of a disputed outcome.

Controversial choices loom as TV border skirmish escalates

“Why can’t we see the Super Bowl ads?” That’s the big question that arises in Canada early each year, as NFL fans on this side of the border come to terms with the fact that they won’t be able to see the spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) ads that air during the biggest U.S. sporting event of the year.

That question about whose ads we get to see lies at the heart of an escalating border skirmish that could bring the future of easy Canadian access to U.S. network television into question.

As the CRTC, the Canadian broadcasting regulator, points out on its web site, it comes down to a matter of programming rights.

Forty years ago, Canadian broadcasters were incensed with the actions of several U.S. TV stations that had their transmitters south of the border, and purchased their programming rights there, but had studios and sales staff in Canada to produce and sell ads during programs for which a Canadian station had supposedly purchased the exclusive local rights.

Eventually, the CRTC announced a new policy called “simultaneous substitution”, or “sim-sub”, which would require cable companies to carry the Canadian signal on both channels if the same program aired on both a Canadian and American station simultaneously.

The Canadian stations were delighted with the results, one 2009 study estimating that “sim-subbing” added about 40 percent to a Canadian station’s audience when airing a U.S.-made program in prime time. It also sent the most aggressive “border pirates” reeling: the Texas-based owner of KCND, an ABC affiliate with its transmitter in North Dakota but studios and sales offices in Winnipeg, quickly sold the station to Canadian investors in 1975, who relaunched the station on this side of the border as CKND (now Global Winnipeg). KVOS, a CBS affiliate serving Vancouver from a transmitter in Washington State, survived; but eventually had to leave CBS and become an independent station to get around the sim-sub problem, and is now little more than a repeater for a Seattle station.

The regulators at the CRTC, who have an “arm’s length” relationship with the politicians but must occasionally show some sign of paying attention to public opinion nevertheless, have made noises recently about possibly getting rid of the sim-sub rules so that Canadians will be able to see the Super Bowl ads.*

In a consultation exercise launched this week, the CRTC asked Canadians how they would feel about U.S. stations being “offered in an optional package and local stations would receive money from the additional subscriber fees to cover the lost advertising revenue” as an alternative to sim-subbing.

In addition to placating Super Bowl viewers, this idea could deal with one aspect of a looming Canada-U.S. trade dispute.

In a Feb. 14 letter to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a coalition of U.S. TV stations urged the American government to confront Canada over “failure to provide adequate and effective protection for the intellectual property rights (IPR) of American television stations redistributed in Canada” and “Canada’s ongoing denial of fair and equitable market treatment that causes harm and damage to American television stations owners and employees”.

Part of the coalition’s letter included an insistence that Canadian cable and satellite operators cease the “unauthorized modification” of U.S. signals caused by sim-subbing, the practice that causes Canadian viewers to see lacklustre Canadian ads during the Super Bowl.

Bell Media, the owner of CTV, Canada’s largest private TV network, as well as many cable channels, takes a different view. Not only do they want sim-subbing to continue, they want to expand it.

In fact, a Bell Media spokesperson even suggested a few months ago that U.S. networks be given the boot completely from Canadian cable and satellite systems:

BCE Inc., Canada’s largest broadcaster, would support the establishment of broadcasting rules similar to those of the United Kingdom, where American channels cannot be aired and broadcasters can license and air shows exclusively, the company said.

“Canada is the only country in the world where American channels are freely carried by cable and satellite distributors, dramatically impacting the value of the exclusive programming rights Canadian broadcasters purchase. Allowing U.S. networks freely into Canada causes massive market disruption. We would be supportive of such a system as seen in the U.K.,” Scott Henderson, a spokesman for BCE division Bell Media, said in an emailed response to questions.

[ . . . ]

Hendersen [sic] said Bell Media would also support a system of “non-simultaneous substitution,” which would expand the existing regime so that the signal is replaced even when the shows are played at different times. No matter when it airs, distributors would be required to substitute the U.S. broadcast signal with the Canadian broadcaster’s signal, including its advertising, where the Canadian broadcaster has the Canadian rights to the program.

Other broadcasting groups shied away from Bell’s aggressive ideas: a Rogers spokesperson was non-committal; a Telus spokesperson was firmer, suggesting that Bell’s position “doesn’t seem realistic”.

Sometime in 2014, the CRTC will begin consulting with the Canadian broadcasting industry on the future of sim-subbing. Regardless of whether they roll back or expand the practice, they will face a backlash from either broadcasters who feel that their business model is being undermined or from a public that won’t like the idea of paying for what they’ve long received at no extra (visible) charge.

To be making that decision while a Canada-U.S. trade war over property rights rolls on in the background, with the possibility that Canadian cable and satellite operators might have to enter into contentious negotiations with U.S. stations to continue using their signals, suggests that the CRTC will be feeling the heat indeed.

* – That is not the only way in which the CRTC has found itself aggravated over the sim-sub policy. After reading a Twitter exchange in which a Rogers Communications representative faulted the CRTC for the inability of Canadian viewers to see U.S. commercials during the NFL playoffs, a “dismayed” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais fired off a tart letter reminding Rogers that substitution is only done at the broadcaster’s request; suggesting that broadcasters educate the public about a policy that was created on their suggestion “rather than simply passing blame onto the CRTC”; and ordering Rogers to “provide a report outlining the training your customer service representatives receive on this issue”.

How not to microwave a former Premier

Stop the Smart Meters, says Vander Zalm. (Photo by Bruce Stotesbury of the Victoria Times-Colonist. Click for source.)

Stop the radio waves, says Vander Zalm. (Photo by Bruce Stotesbury of the Victoria Times-Colonist. Click for source.)

Most members of the Former Premiers Club live relatively low-profile lives after surrendering their province’s top political job to someone else. Former 1969-1977 premier Ed Schreyer, the dean of the club’s Manitoba branch, makes the odd public appearance these days, but otherwise lives in quiet retirement. Ditto for Howard Pawley (1981-88) and Gary Filmon (1988-1999), despite recent attempts to pull the latter back into the limelight.

Only Gary Doer (1999-2009) continues to lead a high-profile existence, owing to his new career as Canadian ambassador to the United States.

There’s no quiet retirement planned just yet however for Bill Vander Zalm, the rambunctious former B.C. premier. Forced out of office in 1991 by a conflict-of-interest scandal, he charged back into the political ring a mere eight years later as leader of a largely unsuccessful populist party from 1999 to 2001.

Seventy-nine years old and 22 years out of office,  Vander Zalm continues to play a curious role in B.C. politics, not so much as elder statesman as a rabble-rouser.

His campaign in recent years to rescind B.C.’s Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is perhaps the least colourful of his efforts. Recently, he filed a federal Freedom of Information request, seeking out information on whether or not the federal government is spraying high-altitude “chemtrails” in an effort at “climate-control engineering”.

“Governments will go ahead and do things, particularly in the name of climate control or, you know, for the sake of agriculture or whatever other excuse they can use . . . They’ll keep it a secret, and they’ll go ahead and do it anyway,” he told a B.C. newspaper.

And don’t get him started on B.C. Hydro’s new Smart Meters.

“Eventually we’ll be governed out of Brussels, Belgium or someplace like that,” Vander Zalm says in a 2011 YouTube video. “They can monitor what’s happening anywhere in the world [using the Smart Meters].”

“They’ll even know what you’re cooking. It’s sad. It’s crazy.”

In an Aug. 7 commentary in Vancouver’s The Province, Vander Zalm expresses concern about the effects that the Smart Meters, which send information back to a central point using a low-powered radio transmitter, might be having on his neighbours’ health.

“We and our neighbours will suffer the effects of an ongoing barrage of radio waves,” he wrote.

For speaking out on the issue, Vander Zalm expresses concern that B.C. Hydro might have tried to get revenge.

“Last week, B.C. Hydro had its ‘get-even’ with me. We had the biggest micro-wave installed in front of our house . . . They could have installed it a block south of our home in a purely agricultural area. They could even have respectfully installed it on the next pole north or south, but instead they put it right in our face by the front gate.”

B.C. Hydro denies that the pole outside of Vander Zalm’s home has any transmitting equipment installed on it.

The Smart Meters remain controversial nevertheless in B.C., despite tests showing that the signals emitted by the smart meters are, in fact, no stronger at just 20 centimeters away from the device than a local FM station’s signal is from a transmitter situated miles away.

In fact, Vander Zalm is likely getting zapped by far more radiation, at least in relative terms, from that agricultural area just south of his home in Ladner, B.C., an outlying Vancouver suburb near the U.S. border.

According to Industry Canada’s Spectrum Direct web site, Rogers Communications has a cell tower in a field just a 16-minute walk south of Vander Zalm’s home.

The tower, 37 metres above ground, pushes out wireless signals at about 780 watts, with few obstructions between the tower and the former premier’s home to weaken the signal.

Entering the known information about the cell tower into an Industry Canada signal coverage estimator shows that the signal from the cell tower is probably in excess of 100 decibels on Vander Zalm’s property — very strong, but still far below the exposure level at which human health becomes a concern.

Smart Meters, by comparison, operate with about one watt of power according to a U.S. radio hobbyist web site.

Punching the known information about Smart Meters into the same Industry Canada signal coverage estimator suggests that the signal from a Smart Meter on the side of Vander Zalm’s home, one metre (three feet) above ground, would be in the 80-90 decibel range at most — roughly equivalent to the amount of radiation one would receive walking down the street 5-10 miles (8-16 kilometres) from an FM radio station’s transmitter.

So the former premier need not lose sleep over the amount of radiation he’s receiving from Smart Meters, much less the idea that the Belgians have any interest in what the Dutch-born ex-politician had for dinner.

But that was a tasty steak your neighbour made tonight, Bill…

The Return of the Bottle Gang?

Better here than online. (Click for source.)

Better here than online. (Click for source.)

Imagine you called an election and almost no one showed up. That was basically what happened in two school board by-elections held in April 2013 here in Manitoba.

Two by-elections in the Seine River School Division were held on April 10 to fill vacancies in Wards 2 and 3. In Ward 2, turnout was just 1.2 percent, with only 72 ballots being cast. The situation was only slightly better in Ward 3, with a 1.7 percent turnout and 104 ballots.

By Seine River School Division standards, the 2010 municipal election in Guelph, Ont. was a smashing success. In that election, the city of 120,000 located 45 kilometres (28 miles) northwest of Hamilton had a voter turnout rate of 33.9 percent.

Guelph city councilors, however, didn’t think that was a particularly impressive turnout. Ever since, they have been debating the merits of allowing city residents to vote online in the city’s 2014 municipal election. This past Monday, they voted 7-to-4 in favour of making that idea a reality.

Guelph is planning to use a system that would require voters “to create their own login with their own security questions that they have to choose themselves”. Thus, voters should not worry about online voting compromising the integrity of the election.

Or should they? Just because an online voting system is as hacker-proof as an online banking site doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to introduce a corrupting element into the system.

The secret ballot — in which no one can prove how a voter cast his or her ballot — owes its existence to efforts to rein in the corruption of democracy’s early days, when votes were freely bought and sold. Consider this 1890 report from the Reading Eagle:

Other candidates say that some very heavy demands have been made upon them by persons who want liquid refreshments for their support. Some want money and clothing, and one candidate for Select Council was requested to buy a man a pair of boots. The officials at city hall who are candidates for re-election have more callers in one day now than they formerly had in a week.

The “strikers” are reported to be very busy and their demands on candidates are for a few dollars, a hat, pair of shoes, cash for the doctor, rent money and for a large variety of other pressing needs. The “bottle gang” is out in full force and their “influence” is freely offered for limited consideration. Candidates of both parties say “it is perfectly awful this year” and that it would require a barrel of money if all the irregular and unauthorized demands for money were complied with.

Online voting would compromise the secrecy of the ballot. While it seems unlikely that anyone would have any luck getting their city councilor to buy them a pair of boots or their provincial MLA to pick them up a bottle of Shiraz at Liquor Mart in exchange for their support if such a scheme were introduced in Manitoba, it does introduce other possibilities for irregularities.

If some unscrupulous person voted on behalf of an ailing or deceased relative, who would know? If someone discreetly invited politically disengaged friends and acquaintances over for beer and food, the price of admission being an online vote for the candidate of choice cast under the host’s supervision, who would report it?

Tolerating such irregularities to improve deteriorating turnout rates in Canadian elections is simply not worth it.

To test whether or not higher voter turnout rates, expressed as a percentage of the voting age population, have a clearly positive effect on a country’s well-being, I compared turnout rates at the most recent parliamentary elections in 37 of the world’s more affluent countries* to several well-being indicators: the Human Development Index, the Global Peace Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Based on a scale of 0-to-1, where a “0” represents no relationship between two variables and a “1” represents a perfect straight-line relationship between those variables — known as the R-squared number — the only indication of a positive relationship between overall voter turnout and a more livable society was a mildly positive tendency for turnout to be higher in countries with better Human Development Index scores.

In all other respects, countries with higher turnouts were neither better nor worse off overall than countries with lower turnouts. When it comes to making an already affluent and democratic country a better place to live, voter turnout rates appear to be just a marginally relevant factor at best.

Relationship between VAP Turnout and Selected Indicators

Eight of the 37 countries looked at have compulsory voting in parliamentary elections. In terms of freedom from corruption, economic competitiveness, human development or domestic peace, there is no sign of any difference overall between those few countries with compulsory voting and the majority without it.

A country’s reputation for open and honest government, however, pushes the needle significantly further when it comes to making that country a better place to live.

While perceptions of corruption appear to have virtually no effect on turnout (and vice versa) in the affluent democracies, countries that are free of corruption can count with some reliability on a better showing in the Human Development Index, the Global Peace Index and on the World Competitiveness Scoreboard.

Likewise, when countries begin to tolerate corruption, they should also expect to become less livable.

Even with a small sample of countries, the relationship between open and honest government and overall livability is no fluke.

Relationship between CPI and Selected Indicators

Honest and clean elections are a fundamental part of building and maintaining an honest and clean system of government. Canada has already been given a black eye in this regard, with voters having reported during the 2011 federal election campaign receiving “robocalls”, supposedly from Elections Canada, telling them that their local polling station had been relocated.

Online voting would open the door to further tarnishing Canada’s reputation for being able to stage impeccably clean and honest elections.

A lower tolerance for corruption in any form carries a strong possibility of a higher quality of life in Canada, so electoral reforms should focus on pursuing perfection in terms of the secrecy and integrity of the ballot.

Higher voter turnout rates, on the other hand, appear to produce very marginal benefits to a country’s livability, if they even make any difference at all. Improving these rates should be considered a desirable cosmetic reform, but nothing more than that, and certainly not as something worth pursuing at the price of compromising the integrity of the ballot.

* – Andorra, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. In some cases, data from the four indices mentioned was not available for all countries.

Finally, something good to say about Facebook

2013 has not been a great year, press-wise, for Facebook. “Facebook is no longer the king of all social media in the minds of adolescents,”  noted one writer on Yahoo’s Shine On site. “It has seen a steep and steady decline in favour of Twitter and other social networks perceived to be devoid of trivial life details, ‘drama’ from friends and the watchful eyes of parents.”

Meanwhile, “Facebook fatigue” has become an increasingly common phrase in news coverage about the site’s long-term investor value and diminishing share of screen-time due to user boredom.

Facebook-land is so full of precipitous cliffs that it’s easy to understand the human urge to just drift away, leaving Facebook as a still-open but increasingly rarely used channel. Unfriend those you no longer wish to read about or be followed by via Facebook, and accept the risk of permanently chilled relations with or even being “re-strangered” by them in real-life. (Blocking and filtering of who sees what is a better option in a big small town like Winnipeg.) Leave Facebook entirely, and lose access to the interesting, fun or important stuff that occasionally pops up among the spam and minutiae.

Human beings love choice and control, and hate being deprived of it, so it’s no surprise that Facebook’s all-or-nothing cliff effects have bred resentment of the site — a resentment that has become more vocal even on Facebook itself in recent years.

Social media is ideal for voicing resentments of life’s problems and for building up a critical mass of people who feel the same way, but who in the past would not have had much possibility of meeting up with the like-minded except by pure chance. Thus, at the same time as Facebook has reached new levels in attracting public scorn, it might have also at last found a positive legacy: as a force, alongside other forms of social media, for political reform.

There have long been anecdotes that social media played a role in the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt during the “Arab Spring”. These anecdotes are supported by a 2012 article in the Journal of Communication by Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson, an academic analysis that concludes that social media probably made the early stages of the revolt against the Egyptian dictatorship’s rule harder to suppress:

[T]hose who used blogs and Twitter for both general information and for communicating about the protests were more likely to attend on the first day, as were those who used the telephone, E-mail, and Facebook to communicate about the protests . . . Although this study did not assess respondents’ overall degree of participation in the protests during the month following January 25, we believe that participation on the first day is a crucial indicator. Under an autocracy, the riskiest kind of dissent is that which fails and the most dangerous protest is one that is small. Smaller protests have a higher likelihood of being effectively censored, isolated, or repressed in authoritarian regimes.

Even in highly corrupt but at least nominal democracies, such as Mexico, social media shows signs of being used to make a country that has long lived under a strict social hierarchy, with a pampered and abusive elite at the top, a little more egalitarian, as The Economist explained in May:

There can be few Mexicans who are not relishing the downfall of Humberto Benítez, head of the consumer protection agency, Profeco, who was sacked on the orders of President Enrique Peña Nieto on May 15th. For weeks Mr Benítez clung tenaciously to his job, claiming he had nothing to do with a scandal that started when his daughter, Andrea . . . failed to get the table she wanted in one of Mexico City’s trendiest restaurants. She stormed over to Profeco demanding that the restaurant, Maximo Bistrot, be closed down. Her father was in hospital at the time, but his subalterns responded with alacrity, sending over inspectors who partially halted business at the restaurant over some minor misdemeanours. Not, however, before Twitter had started to buzz with the story (Andrea was quickly branded #LadyProfeco), turning it into a national scandal.

More recently came an interesting revelation from Egon Krenz, the short-lived East German leader under whose watch the Berlin Wall finally “fell” after 28 years. Now in his seventies, out of prison and living quietly as a retiree in a small town on the Baltic coast, Krenz conceded in June that the Berlin Wall — and with it, the East German dictatorship — could not have survived in the age of social media. A rough translation (available here) from the original German version:

Egon Krenz believes that East Germany, in the age of social networks, could not have maintained the German Internal Wall. The isolated East Germany would therefore, in the Facebook era, have faced existential difficulties.

“This mutually foreclosed system would be, in a world of social media, certainly not be as easy to maintain,” said the 76-year-old. “We would need to accept it…”

Dictatorships thrive best when critics are scattered widely without the ability to coordinate, and most threatened when they come together, as King Louis XVI learned the hard way in 1789 after his summons for the Estates-General to meet to discuss France’s problems spiraled out of his control and turned into the French Revolution. As use of social media continues to grow, the opportunities for critics of abusive regimes, political and otherwise, to come together and gain critical mass to force change will continue to present themselves. For a long-suffering world, that would be a good thing.

If viewers are cutting the cord, then CTV Winnipeg needs a new channel

CTV Winnipeg Bad Signal

Maralee Caruso anchoring CTV Winnipeg’s 6 p.m. newscast, July 19, 2013.

Why pay for cable television when you can get most, or even all, of what you want online? It’s an increasingly common sentiment in Canada today: a market study released earlier this month showed that 16 percent of Canadians claim to do all of their TV viewing online.

Online TV viewing is poised to continue eating into conventional stations’ audiences in the coming years. Not only is more viewing being done on wireless devices, but WiFi-compatible Smart TVs — which allow viewers to switch effortlessly between cable/satellite, local over-the-air TV and web sites — are now becoming commonplace among retailers.

But even without a cable or satellite subscription, there will be times when viewers will want to watch live local TV, particularly for news and sports. Reaching these viewers, who will no longer be as few or as poor as non-cable/non-satellite households usually were in the past, will matter.

That’s where a little problem crops up for CTV Winnipeg, which has long aired the market-leading newscast.

When Winnipeg’s six local television stations shut down their old analog transmitters and went all-digital in 2011, four wisely moved up to the channel 14 to 51 UHF band. UHF frequencies are easier to pick up using the small, discreet antennas that mobile devices come with and that people prefer to have in their homes. These higher frequencies are also less susceptible to interference.

Two stations, however, remained on their original VHF channels: CTV Winnipeg on channel 7, and Citytv on channel 13.

This meant lower digital conversion costs for them, but left their stations on frequencies that were vulnerable to interference from thunderstorms and household appliances, with this interference having the same effect as telephone line static does on a dial-up Internet connection. These lower frequencies also require unsightly larger antennas: at least 84 centimetres (33 inches) across for proper channel 7 reception.

As the following video taken on Friday, July 19 shows, reception of most local TV stations using an indoor antenna in south Winnipeg was good to excellent. Even Cityty was coming in nicely, thanks either to a living room window that faces directly toward their transmitter west of Winnipeg or perhaps the station’s relatively high channel 13 frequency.

The exception was CTV, which suffered from poor signal quality and continue to do so all weekend. (As of 10:30 p.m. Sunday, an attempt to tune in CTV using an indoor VHF antenna facing south toward the station’s Ste. Agathe transmitter generates a “Weak or No Signal” message.)

CTV Winnipeg was pre-approved during the digital switchover preparations to use UHF channel 46. Had it taken up this option, it would never have had the reception problems it will now have among the cord-cutters trying to tune the station in on channel 7.

Channels 25, 28, 42, 43, 48 and 49 are also approved for use in Winnipeg.

The seemingly less-afflicted Citytv also has an option to use channel 32.

Two stations in Ontario, CHCH Hamilton and CBOFT Ottawa, have already dumped their old VHF channels in favour of UHF after receiving complaints that their original channel 11 and channel 9 signals, respectively, were unwatchable.

A U.S. site refers to other stations using the same channel 7 frequency as CTV experiencing serious reception problems. This includes WSVN/7 in Miami, which applied for an “emergency” power increase on the day after the U.S. digital switchover in June 2009, even though the station was operating at higher power at the time than CTV Winnipeg does today; and WLS/7 in Chicago, which moved from channel 7 to channel 44 after receiving 1,735 phone calls in a single day complaining about reception problems.

Time for the FM band to turn Japanese?

AM_FM“Hello, hello, this is station CKZC, Winnipeg,” were likely the first words ever spoken over a Winnipeg radio station, by Lynn V. Salton, a former Royal Navy wireless officer who founded radio station CKZC at his Grosvenor Ave. home in February, 1922.

CKZC was a modest operation that only operated on Sunday and Tuesday evenings at a wavelength of 420 meters (roughly 710 on the AM dial) and a power of just 100 watts. The station would sign on with Salton playing the “El Capitan March”, followed by more records from Salton’s collection during the course of the evening.

It is presumed that CKZC disappeared from the airwaves around the time that the Winnipeg Free Press launched the short-lived CJCG at about 730 on the AM dial a few weeks later, with Salton as the station’s first announcer.

Though it was a mere fraction of the power used by modern AM stations — most Winnipeg and southern Manitoba AM stations broadcast at at least 10,000 watts —  Salton’s 100-watt station was picked up as much as 845 miles away (1,360 kilometres) according to the Manitoba Historical Society, thanks to the tendency of lower-frequency AM band signals to be reflected off the atmosphere at night.

It also helped that the radio bands were much less congested 91 years ago, when the first primitive AM radio stations were going on the air.

Tune across the AM band at night now, and you’ll hear a cacophony of sound as stations from up to 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) away clash with each other.

Unlike signal range, where AM still has a certain advantage over FM in rural areas, sound quality has never been one of AM radio’s advantages. AM stations still have to pack their signal through a relatively narrow “pipe” about 20 kHz wide, one-tenth the bandwidth typically available to an FM station and one-seventy-fifth the bandwidth used by a satellite radio channel.

It’s not just the bandwidth and background interference from other stations that puts AM at a disadvantage. So does its relatively low frequency, which makes it more vulnerable to crackling, crunching and buzzing noises caused by lightning, machinery, appliances, household electronics and power lines.

As portable FM radios and cassette tape players, with their superior sound quality, took the marketplace by storm in the late ’70s and early ’80s, AM radio stations began losing listeners rapidly. Many dropped music in favour of talk formats, and as profits continued to evaporate, replaced local programming with inexpensive syndicated shows.

AM’s descent into irrelevance continued nevertheless. In the United States, AM reached the turning point in 1978, the last year that it accounted for more listener-hours than FM. Today, AM stations account for less than one-fifth of all U.S. listener-hours, and the typical U.S. AM radio listener is 57 years old, according to a 2009 U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study.

Among younger listeners, who vastly prefer listening to music whenever they listen to the radio at all, AM is a rarely visited wasteland of feverish haters, conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalism. The same FCC study found that 12-24 year olds spend just four percent of their listening-hours on the AM band, rising only slightly to a nine percent share among listeners aged 25-34 years.

This led the U.S. broadcasting regulator to conclude that, “the story of AM radio over the last 50 years has been a transition from being the dominant form of audio entertainment for all age groups to being almost non-existent to the youngest demographic groups.”

Consequently, many broadcasters are beginning to give up on AM radio. The former 58 CKY and CKRC 630 have long since decamped to the FM band as 102.3 Clear FM and 99.9 Bob FM respectively. Two more stations — CKSB 1050 and the weaker CKMW 1570 from Morden/Winkler — are poised to join the exodus, with plans to shut down their AM transmitters and to move to 88.1 and 88.9 FM respectively.

This, plus CJNU’s plans to move from 107.9 to 93.7 FM, and plans to open a new country music station in Steinbach on 107.7 FM, mean that the Winnipeg FM dial is running out of bandwidth.

A new station on any other frequency would have to prove that it wouldn’t cause interference not just to any other Winnipeg or southern Manitoba station, but would extend the same courtesy to FM stations as far away as Brandon, Kenora and Grand Forks — a consideration that limits the FM dial to 20-25 local stations in even the largest cities.

Where will that leave CJOB 680, CKJS 810 and TSN Radio 1290, the three remaining Winnipeg stations without an FM slot?

One possibility would be to take over an existing station’s slot. This is a viable option for CJOB, which has a sister station in 99.1 Fresh FM that has been doing only so-so in the ratings. CKJS and TSN Radio, however, could only do this by displacing a more successful sister station.

Another suggested option would allow for massive power increases to fight off electrical and weather-related interference. Yet another would be for AM stations to simultaneously broadcast in both analog and digital, with the receiver switching back and forth between the two modes depending on which one produces a better signal; but results so far in places where digital AM radio has been attempted are far from encouraging.

There is also growing talk in the United States about expanding the FM band by annexing the frequencies currently allocated to TV channels 5 and 6, located just below the FM band between 76 and 88 MHz.

Such an expansion, if it even happens, is probably years away. Though most full-powered U.S. TV stations abandoned channels 5 and 6  in the 2009 digital switchover due to poor reception — digital TV reception on channels 2-13 often ends up looking something like this — a few stations still continue on. Some analog low-power and repeater stations that were exempt from the U.S. 2009 and Canadian 2011 switchover deadlines will continue operating until about 2015, and some might attempt to stay on channels 5 and 6 as digital stations thereafter.

Either the remaining channel 5 and 6 stations would need to move to other channels, or some kind of frequency-sharing agreement would have to be reached.

That latter option has a precedent: while FM radio was expanding rapidly in many parts of the world in the ’70s, Australia was struggling with the fact that it had already assigned the 88-to-108 MHz band used in most of the world for FM radio to Australian TV channels 3, 4 and 5.

After considering the possibility of using higher UHF frequencies, a move that would have made Australian portable FM radios useless in other parts of the world and vice-versa, an agreement was reached to move most TV stations overlapping with the proposed 88-to-108 FM band to new channels, aside from a few repeaters in isolated areas with no FM service. A second agreement will eliminate the remaining TV/FM overlap when Australia’s last remaining rural analog TV transmitters shut down at the end of 2013, reserving the 88-to-108 band exclusively for FM radio.

Given the long distances between the few full-powered channel 5 and 6 digital TV stations that will exist in either Canada or the U.S. after 2015, such a dual-use agreement could be reached. Accommodating FM stations in the space currently reserved for these TV channels should not be a problem in Winnipeg: both channels have been allocated for digital TV use in Winnipeg, but both are unoccupied and almost certainly will remain that way.

A second advantage of expanding the FM band downward is that radios that can tune in those frequencies are already being manufactured for the Japanese market, where FM radio stations have traditionally operated between 76 and 90 MHz, and might soon start showing up in the 90 to 108 MHz band after being vacated by Japanese TV stations during that country’s 2011 digital TV switchover.

Even if the North American FM band is extended down to 76 MHz in the years ahead, allowing all remaining southern Manitoba AM stations to move to FM if they choose, some local stations will continue simulcasting on both bands for 10-15 years after a 76-to-108 FM radio becomes standard in Canadian vehicles, as that is where many Canadians do their radio listening, and no ratings-sensitive broadcaster will give up that market segment.

At least not yet. But radio listening habits, like many other habits, are developed early and are progressively more difficult to change with age. This does not bode well for AM stations competing for the ears of a younger generation that spends more than 90 percent of its radio listening time on the FM band, and many hours more listening to high-quality audio tailored to their own tastes online and on their iPods. Like the listening public, AM radio stations will need to migrate to new technology to survive.