John Cameron flips on the TV at 10:45 most mornings, in time to catch a show famous for its endurance.
“‘The Price is Right’ is on and they’ll have the person that’s made a guess of how much the price is, and then the sound will go out,” he recalled, giving one example of a persistent problem for customers of the only basic cable TV distributor in Del Norte County, Charter Communications.
Cameron echoed frustrations filling up far-flung call centers and local living rooms lately: young, restless soap stars go helplessly mute; bases are stolen by the digital void, never seen live again; suave newscasters suddenly sound like they’ve sucked helium.
And Charter’s technicians, like those dispatched to Cameron’s house twice in the last year, seem powerless to fix the area-wide problem.
Meanwhile, the longtime Smith River resident doesn’t have to guess about the bill, $89 a month for basic cable and Internet, which arrives reliably.
“In the past year it’s gone from bad to terrible. It used to be a daily occurrence, and now it’s an hourly occurrence,” he said of the frequent service interruptions on local network channels, particularly KBVU-FOX channel 2, KIEM-NBC channel 3, KVIQ-CBS channel 6 and KEMY-MyTV channel 8.
The Crescent City Council fired off a complaint letter to Charter recently, while the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors agreed to send a similar missive at its last meeting.
In an emailed statement to the Triplicate this week, Charter spokesperson John Miller laid responsibility at the feet of broadcast companies in Eureka, saying they are obligated to provide distributors like Charter with a clear signal, “which thus far they have failed to do.”
(Charter is obligated under federal law to carry local network stations.)
TV signals from Eureka reach Del Norte in two ways: directly over-the-air and through microwaves. Both methods are “susceptible to line-of-site issues, such as weather conditions and terrain,” according to Miller.
Microwave “hops” are also troubled by commercial power failures at the transmission site, he said.
Microwave transmissions to Crescent City from Eureka hit two remote peaks in Six Rivers National Forest, Horse Mountain to Red Mountain, before reaching a tower on Washington Boulevard.
For the last 50 years, Red Mountain has been topped with telecommunications equipment for public safety dispatch and commercial use. Since time immemorial, it’s been a sacred site for the Yurok people. Currently, it’s the subject of controversy and ongoing negotiations over a state project to license and expand the high-tech footprint there.
“Microwave equipment ... is the responsibility of the broadcaster. We have several sophisticated pieces of equipment to test, analyze and monitor the signals we receive. In the past, we have also taken test equipment to the TV studios, in order to help diagnose their issues,” Miller said.
Compounded by long-standing weather and power issues, digital data is more challenging to transmit over long distances than the analog signals of yesteryear, explained Mark Dare, chief engineer for Eureka Television Group, which operates the stations there that broadcast to Del Norte.
“Historically, you could tune into a distant (analog) signal and there would be some snow with it. With digital, it’s either there or it’s not. The way that a digital stream works is that each piece of equipment gets the stream ... if one of piece of data isn’t there, it hiccups, freezes and waits until it gets enough data to reconstruct and start over,” he said.
In this way an errant pixel from Eureka becomes a frozen screen 80 miles up the road in Crescent City.
Sports can be particularly problematic, Dare said, because networks often boost the amount of data used to broadcast fast-paced games. In places where the signal is clear, this improves quality, capturing every frame as a ball pops off the bat at 100-plus mph. In places like Del Norte, more data can have the opposite effect, overloading the long, fragile passage from north to south.
“The only thing we can do right now is try to strengthen our signal over the air to Charter,” said Robert Castro, president of Sainte Partners, which owns Eureka Television Group.
But is there a better way?
Fiber optic lines attached to utility poles or placed underground would allow for minimal signal degradation over long distances. These cables bring broadcasts from Redding and Chico to the North Coast.
But according to Castro, no such line currently exists between Crescent City and Eureka, and Sainte Partners won’t be putting in any multi-million-dollar infrastructure. It’s in the process of selling all its Eureka stations to another company, Bonten Media and Esteem Broadcasting, which didn’t respond to calls this week.
Area Charter customers have been calling 866-731-5420, reaching corporate centers all over the country and the world, in pursuit of answers, solutions and refunds.
“I’ve been getting the runaround for years,” Cameron said, laughing a little as he recalled a Charter representative in “Texas or someplace” telling him the trouble with his reception was “sunspots.”
Now, he’s heading up the corporate food chain the old-fashioned way, by sending a letter to Charter Vice President Frank Antonovich.
“It might get through, or it might get an answer from him. It’s been an ongoing problem for years and I say, “Well, isn’t anybody going to do something about it?”