It’s Time To Kill Off Broadcast TV

on June 6, 2012

No TVIt’s time to take over-the-air television out and shoot it.

You may have noticed that there’s a war over wireless airwaves. Electromagnetic spectrum is a finite resource and those that have want to keep, but many who have also want more. The pressure is particularly intense to expand the spectrum available for mobile data.

I’m going to sidestep the arguments about just how quickly the demand for wireless data is growing and whether carriers’ claims of a looming crisis are real or a ploy designed to lock up bandwidth and freeze out competitors. One way or another we’re going to need more spectrum over time and the question is where it is going to come from.

All the usable spectrum that exists is assigned to someone and all of it is jealously guarded. A great deal of it is controlled by government and we don’t know how, or even if, some of it is used. But prying it loose will be very, very difficult.

The richest block of spectrum available is being used for over-the-air television broadcasts.  The more than 200 MHz of prime bandwidth assigned to broadcast TV should and be put to a better use.

A half-measure is now underway to recover unused bits of the TV spectrum. Congress last year authorized “incentive auctions,” in which licensees can voluntarily give up unused spectrum and share in the proceeds when the government auctions it off for mobile data use. Even though broadcasters are being allowed to sell something they don’t actually own–channels were originally given to licensees to act as stewards of the “public convenience and necessity”—they have shown no great enthusiasm for the process. It’s far from clear how much spectrum will be freed through the process.

One thing we do know is that it is going to take a very long time. TV channels are assigned in 6 MHz slices and to make the freed spectrum more useful for data, the plan is to “repack” the surviving channels to create bigger contiguous blocks of bandwidth to be sold. But this means that some channels will have to be reassigned to new frequencies, a tedious business. The National Assn. of Broadcasters has never been very enthusiastic about the incentive auctions and is doing its best to delay the process.

Then whole process is too much trouble for too little gain. The better question is why we are dedicating any  spectrum to over-the-air TV. The fact is that relatively few people watch it. While there is some dispute over the numbers, it appears that about three-quarters  of Americans get their television primarily or exclusively by cable or satellite, whether as traditional scheduled programming or content delivered over-the-top on the internet. Cable or satellite service is available to virtually all of U.S. households, and the relatively few exceptions are most likely out of broadcast range as well. Dedicating so much bandwidth to serve and ever-shrinking audience seems foolish.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see the end will come for over-the-air TV any time in the foreseeable future. The deck is too heavily stacked against it. Broadcasters, of course, hate the idea and they remain very powerful in Washington, less because of their campaign contributions than because they control the free exposure on local TV that candidates for Congress depend on. The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t like the idea either because without over-the-air broadcasts the commission would effectively lose all power to regulate television, and regulators do like to regulate. Some will object that free television is a basic right that must be preserved. If so, it is a right that fewer and fewer people seem to care about. If we decide as a matter of public policy that free or very low cost TV should be provided for the poor, it would not be hard to devise something like the (increasingly pointless) lifeline basic landline telephone service. The government could easily afford to pay for it out of the many billions of dollars that auctioning TV spectru would yield.

You need not be a very astute observer of th Washington scene to know that the fact that something should happen is no reason whatever to believe that it will. Still reusing all that underused TV spectrum is something worth dreaming about.