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KTRU will be back

Awesome. And unexpected.

Rice University’s popular student-run radio station, relegated to the Internet when the university sold it in 2010, is returning to the airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday approved the construction of a low-power FM broadcast station at Rice, signaling a return of the station that long highlighted local artists and other musicians rarely heard on the radio.


“KTRU is making its return to the FM airwaves!” station manager Sal Tijerina wrote in an email to station supporters. “By the end of this year, you can expect to tune into KTRU through an FM radio.”

The signal will cover about a five mile radius around Rice, Tijerina wrote.

The station is to be broadcast on 96.1 FM, the former home of KDOL, a country radio station that also broadcasts on 105.5 FM.

The story quotes former station manager Joey Yang saying that the plan was always for KTRU to come back. After almost four years away, I’m sure some folks had lost hope. According to their Facebook page, the call letters are yet to be determined. It will be weird if KTRU comes back under some other name, but that’s still better than them not coming back at all. It will be good to hear them again, if only withing five miles of campus. Swamplot, Rocks Off, and Free Press Houston have more.

Text to 911 option coming locally

Ever wonder why you can’t text 911? Well, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, you will soon be able to.

By the end of the year, millions of Houston-area residents are expected to have a silent alternative: the Text-to-911 option for emergencies.

Despite the popularity of messaging, the service hasn’t been available in most of the nation and much of Texas for the most life-threatening situations: pleas for fire, police or medical assistance.

In May, the nation’s four major wireless carriers met a voluntary deadline to have their end of the Text-to-911 technology ready to deliver customers’ messages topublic safety agencies that request the service, the Federal Communications Commission reported.

As a result, dozens of call centers nationwide and several in Texas can now receive texts from cellphones on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which provides technical support for call centers in Harris and Fort Bend counties that serve more than 5 million residents, will be ready in the coming months to do the same with at least one carrier.

That’s important because most people in the Houston area call for emergency help by cellphone. In the first seven months of this year, 84 percent of emergency calls in Harris and Fort Bend counties originated from wireless lines, Greater Harris County 911 figures show.


FCC rules specify that by year’s end, all wireless carriers – not just the major companies – should be able to provide text messages to call centers that have requested the service.

Those centers, however, are not required to exercise that option, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association – which is known as NENA.

Some states, such as Indiana and Vermont, are deploying the service statewide, he said. Others, such as California, leave the decision to individual public safety call centers or networks.

According to an FCC list dated Aug. 25, 18 states had at least one 911 center that could receive texts, though some were limited to one or two major carriers. The police departments in the Lone Star State which can receive texts are mostly in the Dallas Metroplex. There are none so far in the Houston area.

With the major carriers ready, the last hurdle is preparation at local 911 centers, said NENA government affairs director Trey Forgety.

As we know, text to 911 is currently available in some North Texas counties, which are so far the only places where it has been deployed. Nationally, however, only about two percent of emergency call centers around the country are prepared to handle text messages, and compliance is voluntary at this time. I’d guess that while cell calls are the bulk of 911 contacts, there’s still not much demand for texting emergency services.

All of Collin County supports the service. But it isn’t offered anywhere in Denton County. A handful of police departments in Dallas County can receive emergency texts: Balch Springs, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Wilmer.

But texts still account for only a fraction of 911 requests in North Texas.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments oversees 44 call centers in a 16-county region that includes Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties.

Of those centers, 25 have text-to-911 capability, and the rest will have it by the end of September, said Christy Williams, chief 911 program officer for the agency.

Since the service launched in January 2013, dispatchers at these centers have received only 12 text messages, compared with more than a million 911 calls, she said.

You can see why the rollout is proceeding slowly. To some extent, this is a chicken-and-egg question, and I’ve no doubt that over time usage will grow. There are also still some technical advantages to calling 911, though perhaps over time that will change as well. For now, the potential remains theoretical. For more on the text-to-911 program, see the FCC webpage.

Nationwide WiFi?

This sounds like a big deal.

The federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say. That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing Wi-Fi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and many rural areas.

The new Wi-Fi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate to another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public Wi-Fi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

Of course, a few years ago some of us thought that free WiFi provided by cities would be a big deal, and we all know how that went. As it happens, the original Washington Post story isn’t quite about that.

Unfortunately, as Slate’s Matt Yglesias reported soon after, there is no plan for a free government super Wi-Fi network. What sounded like a plan to create free public Wi-Fi networks is in fact a less ambitious but still vital proposal to reallocate a larger share of the best public airwaves (spectrum) for free shared use without the need for a license. That’s exactly how Wi-Fi operates today—on “unlicensed” bands of spectrum that are equally open to everyone.

There is certainly a strong case to be made that 21st-century public infrastructure should include a minimum level of broadband connectivity almost everywhere. By leveraging existing public assets—both unlicensed spectrum and the spider web of federal, state, and local fiber optic backhaul that crisscrosses the nation—it would be relatively inexpensive to blanket most areas with a basic level of wireless connectivity.

In reality, though, the FCC is not proposing to subsidize the construction of networks. Instead, the agency wants to make enough free and high-quality unlicensed spectrum available that a far wider range of private companies, local governments, and individuals will find it economical to either offer or consume more broadband Internet services.

Oh, well. Still, having lived through the municipal WiFI boom and bust, I was hoping this might be a second chance to get that right. It still could be, but not in the way I envisioned when I read that first story. Kevin Drum has more.

FCC approves KTRU sale

It’s official now.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday approved the controversial sale of Rice University’s radio station, KTRU, to the University of Houston.

The decision comes after a group called the Friends of KTRU filed a petition and three radio listeners submitted objections hoping to scuttle the deal. They argued the sale violated FCC rules and state law because it was not in the public interest, but the FCC, in its order, said the sale was “consistent with the public interest, convenience and necessity.”


Rice student and KTRU station manager Joey Yang said he wasn’t happy with FCC decision.

“It’s disappointing in terms of the FCC preaching localism and local programming,” Yang said. “In the decision they said programming content was not their concern. It seems contradictory.”

In the petition, supporters argued that the change of format contradicted the commission’s policies promoting local programming. The FCC, however, found no grounds for the objections.

“Although the commission recognizes that the station’s program format has attracted a devoted listenership, it is well-settled policy that the commission does not scrutinize or regulate programming, nor does it take potential changes in programming formats into consideration in reviewing assignment applications,” the decision states.

You can read the FCC’s decision here. Not surprisingly, Save KTRU isn’t happy with it.

The decision shows a lack of commitment on the part of the FCC to its own public statements regarding the importance of localism and diversity in American broadcast media.

If the segment of the FM radio dial reserved for noncommercial stations is now also subject to the unobstructed machinations of the free market, it is highly likely that local voices will increasingly disappear from American broadcast radio. Indeed, evidence of such a trend is already overwhelming, and it is quite clear that market forces are promoting uniformity at the expense of diversity. Only through protection by a government agency properly enforcing its mandate to regulate this resource on behalf of the public, and thus maintaining sources of relevant locally produced programming, will such stations continue to exist and enrich the public cultural discourse of their communities.

The degree to which a station serves its local community can be evaluated independently of its particular format. We propose that in the future, the FCC not hold itself hostage to outmoded precedents running contrary to its stated goals, but instead consider and base its regulations and actions on what is truly in the public interest, to spare other communities the fate of a media bereft of meaningful local voices.

KTRU has been broadcasting on KPFT’s HD radio channel and will continue to do so. It’s not been determined yet when new station KUHC will be up and running, but according to Rocks Off, Rice and UH have ten business days to transfer the money from the sale. One way or another, the era of KTRU on 91.7 is at the end.

More on the KTRU/KPFT deal

After I read about the KTRU/KPFT deal, in which KTRU will broadcast over one of KPFT’s HD radio channels, I wondered what the folks at Save KTRU thought of it. At the time I posted, there wasn’t anything on the website about the deal, but there is now:

Friends of KTRU, a group of students, alumni and community members devoted to stopping the assignment of KTRU’s non-commercial (NCE) FM license, as well as KTRU’s student management, reject any notion that the dispute over the future of KTRU’s FM license and transmitter has been resolved by the agreement, announced today, regarding the simulcasting of KTRU’s programming on KPFT’s HD2 channel.

“HD radio is better than no radio,” said KTRU Station Manager Joey Yang, “but is orders of magnitude less viable than our current FM broadcast.”

Potential and actual listenership of HD radio is a fraction of that of conventional FM radio, and reception of HD radio broadcasts requires the purchase of a specialized receiver, putting it out of the reach of those with limited financial means.

The FCC has not yet ruled on Friends of KTRU’s Petition to Deny the transfer of KTRU’s FM license. Both Friends of KTRU and KTRU’s student management remain committed in their opposition to any sale of KTRU’s assets.

That quote by station manager Joey Yang seemed to contrast with what he had said in the earlier Chron story:

“We’re excited,” said Joey Yang, KTRU station manager and a junior at Rice. “We think HD radio is going to be a viable option for us.”

I was curious about that, so I sent him an email and asked him to elaborate. This is what he said to me:

Yes, I’m happy with the deal. HD radio, as I’ve said before, is better than no radio. We realize the value of FM, though, and still seek to deny the transfer of the license. That’s still the main goal. HD radio is still an up-and-coming technology, hence my comments in the Friends of KTRU release, but it’s important to note that FM was an up-and-coming technology once upon a time. So, to clarify, FM is much more ubiquitously available than HD radio, but I, and the DJs at KTRU, are very excited about the possibilities that HD radio holds.

Fair enough. I also asked him what will happen to the KPFT deal if the FCC ultimately denies the sale of KTRU’s license, as SaveKTRU and others have advocated:

If the FCC denies the sale of KTRU, then I guess we’ll have both an HD stream with KPFT and an FM stream. Two is certainly better than zero.

So there you have it.

KTRU supporters go to the FCC

I wish them luck, but I would not hold out much hope.

Supporters of Rice University’s student-run radio station have formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to deny the station’s sale to the University of Houston, contending it would weaken the educational mission intended by the FCC and harm listeners.

Joey Yang, a Rice student and KTRU station manager, said the goal is to stop the $9.5 million sale, which was approved last summer.


“There’s nothing like KTRU on the air right now,” Yang said. “(National Public Radio) and classical music are both well-served by KUHF’s current format. We think the loss of the independent, eclectic format is a net loss to the community.”

The petition was filed Friday, the final day public comments on the proposal were accepted by the FCC.

No date has been set for a decision, but FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise said the commission tries to act “in a timely manner.”

The full Petition to Deny is at Save KTRU. Here’s their press release, with a brief summary of what the petition contains:

  • The proposed programming for the new station would significantly decrease community-oriented programming, in contravention of the FCC’s emphasis on broadcast localism
  • The proposed assignment would be contrary to the educational purpose of the non-commercial FM license
  • Internet transmission of KTRU would be a poor substitute for FM broadcast
  • Houston-area non-commercial, educational FM licenses would be overly concentrated in the hands of UHS and non-independent operators
  • Questions exist as to the qualifications of UHS holding an additional NCE FM license
  • Rice and UH’s secrecy, deception excluded student and community participation
  • Characterization of FM radio license as a “declining asset” and sale at a below market price is harmful to the public interest

These are all valid points, I just don’t think they’re going get anywhere with them. I could be wrong. Regarding that penultimate bullet point, I refer you to the Houston Press “Turkey of the Year” award for David Leebron. I’m hard pressed to think of how they could have done this any worse.

What about the classical music?

This Chron story adds a dimension to the KTRU debate that I haven’t seen discussed before.

Classical music fans in the city’s southern and western suburbs may not be able to hear the station intended to serve their interests.

“It’s all static,” Clear Lake resident Jay Bennett said of the radio signal that would be designated for classical music and arts programming if the deal goes through. “It seems odd that they would degrade their (classical music) signal and alienate a lot of their listeners.”


[N]ot everyone in the sprawling metropolitan area now served by KUHF would be able to hear static-free programming on the new station, which would be renamed KUHC.

The 50,000-watt KTRU tower is north of Bush Intercontinental Airport, with its signal reaching about 30 miles in all directions, UH spokesman [Richard] Bonnin said.

Some people can hear it farther out, depending on the terrain and the listeners’ radio equipment.

KUHF’s 100,000-watt transmitter in Missouri City reaches 50 miles or more in all directions, Bonnin said.

The university knew about the limits to KTRU’s reach when it began negotiations for the transmitter and license, he said.

Their proposed solution to this is HD radio, which is to say pretty much what had existed before for those wanted classical or NPR 24/7. I have three questions:

1. How expensive would an upgrade to a 100Kw transmitter be? My guess is “very”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not feasible.

2. Would there be any technical reason why KTRU couldn’t be upgraded to 100Kw? Like another station nearby on the dial whose signal would be obliterated by a stronger one at 91.7, for example.

3. If the transmitter cannot be upgraded for whatever the reason, would this be grounds for the FCC to disapprove the sale?

I don’t know, so that’s why I’m asking. If you do know, please leave a comment.

The KTRU rally

The Houston Press, which has largely owned this story, reports from today’s rally to save KTRU.

Early this afternoon, protesters met at Valhalla, Rice’s on-campus pub, to make signs and t-shirts for the protest before marching as a group to the statue of William Marsh Rice in near triple-digit heat. The timing of the protest and the weather no doubt kept some people away, but the event was still 100-plus strong, with people lining the perimeter of the quad where trees provided shade.

Event organizers also set up tents, handed out cold water and gave away noisemakers to the protesters. Tables held “Save KTRU” stickers, petitions and poster-making supplies.

Even before the event started, one “KTRUvian” climbed atop the Willy statue to speak. “If we don’t take a stand now, nothing will ever change,” he said. “I invite you to create a little chaos.” He then had to be asked to climb down by the rally’s organizers, who had a tight schedule of speakers to get through.

Student DJ Joey Yang, who helped organize the rally, spoke of Rice’s upcoming 100-year anniversary and the station’s 40-year history as a student-run entity. He said he’d learned that over a year ago Rice began looking for someone to take the station “off of their hands,” to which someone in the audience angrily replied “It’s not their station!”

Yang said the University had adopted a new slogan for it’s anniversary “Unconventional Wisdom”.

“KTRU embodies what a Rice University education is supposed to be about.”

The Chron has some photos; they also opined about the sale.

Another UH rationale for the purchase was to increase the capacity of KUHF to produce quality local programming. In the past, critics have judged both KUHF’s classical music programs and local news and public affairs programming mediocre at best.

Simply adding another broadcast station at UH won’t solve that problem. It’s going to take strong leadership and talent, something that doesn’t automatically come with a new broadcasting tower and frequency. If the sale goes through, the ultimate justification for the expenditure must be a sharp upgrade in the quality, rather than the quantity, of programming.

Recent history suggests that’s not going to happen. I’m rooting for that outcome, too, but I can’t say I’ll be surprised to be disappointed.

I guess the question I have at this point is, how exactly do the Save KTRU folks hope to affect the final outcome? Both boards of regents have voted to go ahead with the sale. There’s a 30-day public comment period, after which the FCC must give its approval, but what are the odds that it won’t? More to the point, what are the conditions under which they won’t? (Yeah, there’s the Open Meetings Act issue, but 1) that’s a question for the Attorney General, not the FCC, and 2) far as I know, nobody has asked the Attorney General to investigate that yet.) I don’t see what leverage exists for those who oppose the sale. The Burn Down Blog suggests Rice President David Leebron is prepared for the possibility of losing the fight over KTRU, but he doesn’t suggest how Leebron might lose it. I admire the passion of the KTRU supporters, but I don’t know what their plan is. How exactly are they going to achieve the result they want? Help me out here, because I don’t see it.

UPDATE: More photos from the rally here.

UPDATE: And here’s the Chron story of the rally.

FCC to move forward on Net Neutrality

Good news.

The fight for Net Neutrality took a big step forward on Monday with the chair of the Federal Communications Commission announcing plans to expand the rules to protect a free and open Internet.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Julius Genachowski said the FCC must be a “smart cop on the beat” preserving Net Neutrality against increased efforts by providers to block services and applications over both wired and wireless connections.

Glad to hear it, and I have faith they’ll do a good job of it, as they appear to be pointing in the right direction. Rep. Ed Markey, a co-author of net neutrality legislation, praised Genachowski’s speech. Even more encouraging, it appears that the votes are there on the FCC to get this through. Expect the rule-making process to start next month, with a vote early next year.

Time to replace that portable TV

I don’t have a portable TV, so I hadn’t given the matter of their obsolescence due to the digital transition any thought, but if you have one, you ought to be aware of it.

Though Americans were given four extra months to prepare for the nationwide switch from analog to digital signals, the conversion date last week coincided with the advent of this year’s hurricane season, creating challenges for those like Clanton, who depend on battery-operated sets during emergencies.

Because digital converter boxes are plugged into the wall, on-the-go analog TV sets won’t function during a blackout. The audio from analog TV broadcasts received on radios are now tuned out, as well.

In September, former Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin warned of a possible shortage of battery-operated digital TV equipment and called on groups such as the Consumer Electronic Association to encourage their availability.

FCC spokeswoman Edie Herman said the agency was both concerned and prepared from the outset for residents who rely on portable sets during emergencies.

“The question of battery-powered TVs came to our mind very early on,” she said, “and so the people trying to help and educate consumers with the change were aware of the issue, too.”

The only portable analog sets that have the potential to be kept alive are ones with an antenna port, typically absent on older or smaller models. These TVs must be combined with supplemental devices to get a picture.

Apparently, there are battery-powered digital TVs available, but they’re more expensive and early models weren’t very dependable. The article suggests an NOAA weather radio as a cheaper alternative.