An article from TV NewsCheck last week reported on an approach by an FCC representative to television operators, floating an idea that the FCC would "buy" TV spectrum from existing television station operators, and repurpose that spectrum for wireless users – presumably some sort of wireless broadband. The funds to buy the spectrum would come from the auction of the frequencies. Over-the-air TV viewers would perhaps be left with a limited over-the-air service. Today, another article cites a study filed at the Commission that suggests that the auction of TV spectrum could bring in more than three times the value of what that spectrum is for broadcasting. Could these developments grow into a ground swell that could signal the end of over-the-air television? Nicholas Negroponte made the much quoted observation almost 15 years ago, before the Internet was the multi-media service that it is today – that communications devices that were wired will become unwired, and those that were wireless would become wired – the "Negroponte Switch" or the process of "unwiring." But is this switch inevitable for television, and is it in the industry’s best interest?
The theory of unwiring looked at the growing demands of wireless data networks for more and more bandwidth. While voice and data services were, at one time, wired services (the plain old telephone, the fax, even the telegraph), more and more of that information is now being digitally packaged and delivered wirelessly. At the same time, video programming was delivered through wireless over-the-air television (though no one ever referred to it as "wireless"), but each year is more and more delivered by wired means (by cable companies and what used to be telephone companies). At this point, estimates are that only a bit more than 10% of television households get their television programming exclusively from over-the-air reception. Looking at this transition, some have theorized that the progression would continue, and the broadcast services would end up being delivered to fixed locations by wire, while the data services would be delivered wirelessly.
While the theory has some facial attraction, one does not need to look very far to find breaks in the logic. For instance, of the households that supposedly do not receive their television programming over-the-air, many in fact have second or third television sets that are not connected to cable or satellite. Satellite is itself an "unwired" medium that uses spectrum that could theoretically be used for more mobile services, but satellite has found a growing audience for its transmissions to what are most usually the fixed locations that the theory suggests are best served by wired communications.
Moreover, much of the demand for new wireless spectrum is for the transmission of what looks an awful lot like the traditional "wireless" broadcast media – audio and video content. These niche services, though certainly becoming more commonplace, are still dwarfed in terms of number of viewers and amount of content delivered by the content delivered through more traditional media. Already, we are reading stories about the "the Internet" being strained by the demands put on it by current content. Even if "wireless" were to be given TV spectrum, if there is a wholescale switch to an IP delivery of broadcast content, would there be the capacity to deliver content to everyone? Broadcasting still remains a very efficient means to delivery content to mass audiences.
It is interesting that these discussions are following so soon after the FCC spent the first 6 months of this year working to preserve the delivery of free-over-the-air television to viewers during the digital transition. One of the biggest concerns of the FCC was the fear that distinct groups, including the poor and certain minority communities, may well be the most likely to be disenfranchised by the lack of a free over-the-air alternative. In fact, one of the promises of the digital transition was the potential of broadcasters delivering multiple free streams of programming to these persons to give them something closer to the diversity and choice delivered to subscribers to multi-channel pay delivery systems. Even leaving a lifeline over-the-air service, as suggested by the TV NewsCheck article, would not in any way add to the richness of choice to these viewers that can be provided under current systems
What are broadcasters to do? Broadcasters need to remember to promote their over-the-air reception, so that it is not taken away. From all that I have heard, the uncompressed over-the-air HD signal is perhaps the best picture that a TV viewer can get – yet that is rarely if ever promoted by broadcasters. And, as mobile versions of the digital signal are rolled out, broadcasters need to take advantage of those systems promptly and aggressively to show that they are indeed making use of the spectrum of which they are guardians. The reallocation of the TV spectrum is an issue that has been building for quite some time – broadcasters should weigh their actions carefully to make sure that it is a idea whose time has not yet come.
Update 10/26/2009, 1:40 PM: I just returned from a lunch meeting of the Federal Communications Bar Association, where the speaker was William Lake – Chief of the Media Bureau of the FCC. When asked about these reports of the use of TV spectrum for broadband, he said that the Media Bureau was working with the rest of the Commission on broadband issues, and that spectrum was an important part of that review. So it appears that the issue is at least being studied at the FCC – though who knows how far along the process may be.