Monday, April 18, 2016

Having Trouble with Time Warner’s Digital Adapter?

A while back I wrote about how some changes were coming if you are a Time Warner Cable subscriber.  The company is dropping the analog cable service and all subscribers will be required to have a special digital adapter if they do not already rent a set top box from the company.  Well, the deadline is fast approaching and from my emails and comments it looks like some people are having problems getting these adapters to work.

Just to review: Ever since the cable companies began providing digital cable, a system that was much superior to the old analog system, the companies have essentially operated two separate systems. Initially this was done so customers with older TVs could easily hook up their sets.  Now that most people have digital wide screen TV sets, the analog system is no longer required.

Many customers have several TV sets connected to the cable.  Some of the sets make use of the set top box but others, up until now, could be connected directly to the cable using the TV set’s internal QAM (cable) tuner.  By the end of April, the QAM tuner will not be compatible with the cable signal so a special digital adapter, provided free by the company, will be required for each cable-connected TV set if it does not use a set top box.

For most people, setting up the digital adapter is very easy by following the directions that come in the shipping box.  However, some have found that no matter what they do they can’t get the adapter to work.  In most cases the root problem is in the quality of the cable signal running throughout the house to the TV sets.  The digital signal is not as robust as the old analog signal.  A bad cable or a cable of inferior quality could pass the analog signal and the only issue was a less than perfect picture.  Digital signals are prone to the “cliff effect.”   Essentially this means you have a perfect picture or none at all.  So if the signal in the cable is not adequate, the TV set will display nothing. 

There are some fixes for this situation.  First make sure your cable runs are as short as possible. Invest in higher quality coaxial cable for use within your house. The cable guy may be able to help you.  Keep the number of cable splitters to a minimum as each one will weaken the signal passing through it.

If all else fails call the cable company.  It is in their best interest that you are a happy customer.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Before You Cut That Cord…

Before You Cut That Cord…Before You Cut That Cord…

There has been a lot of talk lately about cancelling cable or satellite services and opting for using online and over-the-air TV offerings instead.  I have written often about this trend. As average monthly cable TV bills hover near $100, a 40% increase in just 5 years, both the desire too for cut costs and changing viewing habits are pushing more of us to consider cutting the proverbial cord.  But before you get those scissors out of the kitchen drawer there are a few things you should do to make sure you will save money and can really get along without that cable subscription.

Most people will want to continue to receive their local TV channels using an antenna.  In most cases this is very easy but not always.  A reader recently sent me a note informing me that he cut the cord only to find out that he could no longer get local Channel 12 (WKRC) over the air.  The reason behind this is grist for another column but suffice it to say in some areas getting all the local channels with an antenna can be impossible.  The good news is that you can connect an antenna to your TV before making your decision to cancel your cable.  Your out-of-pocket cost is less than $20 for a simple indoor TV antenna and an hour of your time to see what you can receive.

Taking advantage of the various streaming services on the internet requires you to have a good internet connection.  You need to decide if the monthly cost of having internet connectivity should be factored into your decision-making equation since you most likely want that connection regardless of your cable cutting decision.

I suggest that you write down, over a two week period, the TV programs that you regularly watch.  Once you have that list you need to see which of these programs are offered free over-the-air and which are available on one or more of the pay streaming services.   Each of the major internet based TV services have a base fee. Hulu Plus and Netflix charge about $10 per month each while Amazon Prime has an annual fee of about $100.  The major networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox each have offerings ranging from free to $10 per month. Good news: PBS streaming is free.

Now take a piece of paper and write down the combined costs of all the online services you will need and see how that number compares with what you are now paying for cable or satellite.  In most cases it will be less even if you factor in the entire cost of the internet service.

If you do cut the cord, when searching for your favorite show you may need to press a few more buttons. The learning curve is not steep and you will soon learn how to go from one service to the other.  If more and more of us decide to eschew cable, who knows, the providers might begin to offer a more a la carte TV menu with reduced fees.  But don’t hold your breath!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Internet Access No Luxury

Few technological advancements have been adopted faster and with more societal impact as the internet and the plethora of related applications made possible by the internet.  The worldwide web, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and countless other services have reshaped commerce, social interaction, the media, education and most every other aspect of our daily lives. It should come as no surprise that last week Federal regulators voted to expand a $1.5 billion telephone subsidy program to bring broadband to many disadvantaged in our society.

The Federal Communications Commission approved expanding the Lifeline program to include discounts for broadband Internet service. This decision expands these services to the Reagan Era program, which was originally designed to provide subsidized land-line telephone service to low-income households. Starting in December 2016, commercial broadband providers offering discounted internet service to eligible Lifeline customers will receive a $9.25 subsidy per Lifeline subscriber.
Few would argue today that having access to the internet is a luxury.  Applying for a job, interacting with government agencies, and accessing expanded educational opportunities all rely on being able to go online.  In many ways internet access has become a basic utility like water, sewer and electric power.
The US has a long history of assisting those of less means to reap benefits of new technologies.  For example, the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, provided low cost federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas of the United States. The funding was channeled through cooperative electric power companies, many of which still exist today.  That Act helped to improve the living standards of the people not only by giving them electricity in their homes but also by making it possible for industry to locate in these rural areas bringing jobs and economic growth.

It took about 60 years for home electrification to be seen as a non-luxury item and spark the beginning of a government subsidy program for the disadvantaged.  It took almost 100 years for telephone service to be recognized as a necessity.  The first internet provider began commercial service in the US and Australia about 1990.  So the path of internet access from being considered a luxury to a necessity has been much quicker.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

FCC To Propose New Privacy Rules for Internet Service Providers

Personal privacy continues to be a hot button item for many of us as we embrace new digital communication technologies.  Most recently, the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Thomas Wheeler, announced plans to propose new rules limiting what personal information can be sold by Internet Service Providers. (ISPs)   An ISP is your connection to the Internet.  These companies provide the wire or fiber coming into you house or business. In our area the leading ISPs are Cincinnati Bell, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.  In most cases, other than supplying email accounts, ISPs serve only as the intermediary between you and the plethora of online services like Facebook, Netflix, Skype, Pandora and thousands of thousands of other apps.

Currently most all of these ISPs capture copious information about which sites you visit and even what information or product you are searching for.  This information is extremely valuable to companies who want to sell you something and, as such, a source of significant revenue to the ISPs when they sell this information to those companies.  It is no coincidence that an hour after you search for some item or service on line that often you will see a slick advertisement on your Facebook page for that very item.

Chairman Wheeler is proposing that this practice of selling usage information should be better communicated by the ISPs to the consumer and that the consumer must “opt in” to allow their information to be shared.

When signing up for most any service or app, before downloading or using it we are faced with “accepting” the terms of an agreement written in legal and technical terms which would befuddle even the most educated among us.  Since they are almost biblical in length, most of us just click the box and go on our merry digital way.  Buried deep in your ISP agreement is your permission to allow the sale of your information to third parties.

The proposed rules would change this permission process requiring you to click a specific box allowing the sale of your usage information rather than having this permission buried in the agreement text. 

ISP’s contend that the revenue from the sale of this information helps keep their monthly fees low.  This may be the case and the rules would allow for some flexibility in pricing if you allow your information to be sold.

These new rules are still in the development phase and would need to go through the process of public comment before being considered by the entire commission.  This normally takes several months.  I will stay on top of it.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

So What Is Really Stored In Your iPhone?

The saga continues to be played out in the courts and the media.  Should Apple be forced to write new software allowing Federal investigators to retrieve information thought to be contained in the iPhone5 used by Syed Farook, one of the terrorists responsible for the recent San Bernardino attack?   Strident and cogent arguments have been made from both sides of the argument and soon the courts will have the final say.  After following this story you may be more than curious to know what specific information might be contained in your iPhone or other smartphone model.

To begin to get a clearer picture of the contents of your phone it might be good to note that your smartphone is much more than a device for making calls or texting.  The computing power and storage capacity of a standard iPhone6 has exponentially more computing power than the Cray super computers of the last century and could guide a million Apollo lunar missions simultaneously.  The phone’s internal storage can handle billions of bits of information and the screen can display graphics better than the best flat panel TV. 

For many of us, the smartphone has become indispensable for managing our professional and social lives. That being so, we keep a great deal of information in the phone which was once relegated only to our wallet, a bank safety deposit box or that shoe box in the hallway closet.  Since we know we have stored contacts and addresses, passwords and bank account information, and pictures of our kids, we have a good idea of what we are carrying around in our pocket or purse and, heaven forbid, what we have lost if the phone comes up missing.  Or do we really know?

Over and above what we actually choose to save in our phone, the software in the phone retains an extraordinary amount of information automatically without our knowledge but with our permission. Most of us automatically click “Accept” when faced with the License Agreements on our devices without actually reading what we just accepted.

If you were able to peer into the innards of your phone you would find a trove of some very personal information.  Each picture has a time, date and location stamp.  Depending on the size of your storage, a record of every keystroke and other phone usage is retained for months perhaps as much as year.  This includes bank account information, passwords, personal communication, text messages, music or podcasts listened to and even locations visited.  Once accessed, a map and chronology of your entire life could be reconstructed.  For most of us that story might be very boring, for others, not so much.

For sure the digital revolution has been a boon to our economy, has enhanced our education and knowledge, and opened up wonderful entertainment options. It also has given us some very serious and important social and political issues to deal with.

I will be on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition at 1:30pm Wednesday, March 23rd. You can call in with any technology questions or comments.  WVXU is 91.7 FM.  Hope to hear from you.  If we get enough calls I may be asked back.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

How to Weather the Weather

Last weekend we switched to Daylight Saving Time. The changing of the time and the upcoming entry into spring will not only bring much anticipated warmer temperatures but also the potential for storms.   This is a good time to think about our preparation for stormy weather and potential flooding and loss of electrical power.

First and foremost it is always good to know when inclement weather is approaching.  Sirens and warnings are certainly valuable and important, but their seemingly intermittent and arbitrary use has caused some of us to essentially ignore their wail and cry.  Also, many of us live outside of earshot of these warnings.

The purchase of an inexpensive weather radio is not only useful, but may be a critical safety factor for you and your family.  But, you may not need to buy one if you have a smart phone.  There are several apps that, just like a weather radio, give you warning if a dangerous storm is approaching your area.  Most all of the local commercial TV stations and the Weather Channel have apps, some free of charge, that can be lifesavers. 

One of the better offerings is the Storm Shield app.  It essentially turns your phone (either iPhone or Android) into a weather radio.  You can program it for specific local forecasts and warnings or let the location feature on the phone decide what forecast is most appropriate for your current location.  In the Cincinnati area WCPO Channel 9 provides some content for Storm Shield.  The Storm Shield costs about 5 bucks.

Once a storm hits we are often faced with power outages.  Most are brief but I can remember some that lasted more than 24 hours.  The installation of a backup power generator is out of reach for most of us but that does not mean that we have to stay in the dark.  I noticed recently at Costco and other big box stores several different battery powered LED lights for sale very inexpensively.  

I bought a set of eight LED lights and put one in each room of my house.  Each light is about the size of a stack of three Oreo cookies so they can be placed inconspicuously in each room.  Some came with self- stick tape so you can affix them to the wall or ceiling.  Since the package included a small remote control, when the power goes off I can walk through the darkened house activating each light without having to locate each one and turn it on manually.  It is a pretty cool inexpensive solution.  

Speaking of batteries, this is also a great time to be sure to change those batteries in the smoke alarms. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

CFLs … Going the Way of Audio CDs?

Ever since 1995 when Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFLs) first came to the consumer marketplace, many of us have had a love / hate relationship with these strange bulbs that resemble a pig’s tail.  For sure, they are more energy efficient than their incandescent older siblings but it took some time to get used to some of the quirks in the technology.  CFLs take several seconds to reach maximum brightness when turned on.  In very cold locations, like barns and garages, cold winter temperatures exacerbate this delay. 

Many find the light output very harsh.  Some of the early bulbs could not be dimmed and the color temperature was toward the blue side rather than the red softer glow of the traditional incandescent lights.  Also, there remains the disposal issue. CFL lamps require small amounts of mercury to operate.

The newest kid on the block is the LED lamp (Light Emitting Diode.)  These LED lamps are extremely efficient, have tremendous service life, and come in various color temperatures.  Even better, they continue to come down in price.  They can even help save on cooling in the summer months as they give off very little heat.

About the only real downside is the availability of very bright bulbs.  I am sure that this will soon be addressed, but I have yet to find a 200 watt equivalent for the main light in my kitchen.

Just last week, General Electric announced that they are phasing out the manufacture and sale of CFLs and concentrating on LED technology.  For GE, one of the world’s largest companies, to make this move should provide a real boost to the advancement of LED technology and continue to force prices down.  It also might mean the end of CFLs.

Many of us who are customers of Duke Energy have a way to buy LEDs very inexpensively.  Recently the company sent an email to customers offering very deep discounts on the purchase of various types of LED lamps.  If you have not taken advantageof this offer, you may wish to check it out.    There you will find many special sizes.  They even have some lamps for candelabra chandeliers.

There has never been a better time to replace the lamps in your house with LED technology.  It will pay for itself in a short time.