When will broadcast TV cease to exist? Or why won't it?
November 23, 2016 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Just curious if anyone out there knows why broadcast TV stations aren't going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon? Broadcast TV occupies nice wireless frequencies that can travel long distances and penetrate walls, etc.. but with fewer people watching broadcast TV, why are there "whitespace" experiments -- and not full experiments to replace "TV spectrum" with general purpose "Internet spectrum"? Do TV stations have some kind of regulatory right to exist or something?

It just struck me that if I owned a TV station -- why wouldn't I turn it into a wireless ISP and broadcast my "TV content" over the internet? I suppose there are still a lot of people who watch broadcast TV, but aren't there more people who would want to have an alternative ISP? Or I guess if I owned just one TV station -- that wouldn't been enough capacity to provide internet to very many customers?
posted by lostguy to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For OTA broadcasts, aren't you missing the fact that they're necessarily one way? I'm not sure if there's any reason their frequencies haven't been encroached on, but they certainly wouldn't make for usable ISPs.
posted by sagc at 1:59 PM on November 23, 2016

It's a great question with a series of answers.

First, you can't unilaterally repurpose your spectrum. The FCC licenses it to you to do a thing, and only that thing, at least for the time being.

Second, because licensed spectrum is use it or lose it, and because everyone expects the FCC will eventually allow broadcast stations to use their television spectrum for other things, using it now preserves its (collectively, hundreds of billions of dollars) of value -- station owners will happily broadcast at full power with NO viewers using antennas for that reason.

Third, the government has certain legacy preferences in terms of programming that accrue to broadcast stations that are valuable for broadcast station owners in their dealings with cable and satellite companies.

Fourth, broadcast stations have "must carry" rights against cable and satellite companies -- these aren't used by the big network affiliates (who actually WITHHOLD signal unless their paid enough) but are extremely value for independent stations.
posted by MattD at 2:03 PM on November 23, 2016 [16 favorites]

I should add as a sort of asterisked answer ... that some people in the television industry continue to believe a new market will develop for over the air television broadcasts ... e.g. cord-cutters will start to put antennas on their TVs in meaningful number, Apple or Android phone OEMs will start engineering phones and tablets with effective HDTV antennas built in or somebody will event a dongle and app that does the same job and gets popular, etc.
posted by MattD at 2:05 PM on November 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

High UHF has already been reallocated from broadcast TV to mobile phone service in a spectrum auction a few years ago, and wireless providers are already using it (this is the spectrum that T-Mobile's "Extended range LTE" is on). And The FCC just held an auction on even more TV spectrum. Expect this to continue.
posted by zsazsa at 2:40 PM on November 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Good answers above. FWIW, broadcast TV's easier to use than it's ever been. We've got maps to show how to set up your antenna, unobtrusive antennas, and my TV's tuner shows channel names and program names just as though I'm using a cable box. I'd be unhappy to lose this use of the spectrum that's free (for anyone with the equipment) to a paid service. This is why we have licenses for broadcasting frequencies: it's something that fundamentally belongs to all of us but can only be used by some of us at the same time/place.

Relatedly, just because it has many pretty colors, here's the U.S. Frequency Allocation Chart as of January 2016 (PDF), found here.
posted by asperity at 4:37 PM on November 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not an expert, but the infrastructure already exists, so I don't know why they'd have to stop. Maybe once all the people who watch broadcast die and cord cutters replace them, but I suspect we will see TV networks going online more and more. It's starting to happen -- I watch all my live sports programming online -- but it's still far off. It's not exactly possible to just watch the Bachelor online whenever else is watching it on TV, unless I subscribed to a specific service that offers it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:48 PM on November 23, 2016

Even if individual stations could use their frequency allocation for LTE or whatever they wanted, a single 6MHz channel isn't all that useful in terms of available bandwidth. Plus there isn't any equipment on the market that could use it, so user equipment would be overly expensive.

With the move to digital, they actually are allowed to have subscription-based subchannels or data-only subchannels and a few even tried to do it for a while, but expensive equipment and lack of a market killed that off pretty quick. As long as they keep broadcasting the primary signal in the clear they can do whatever they like with the remaining bandwidth. These days they mainly stick to secondary networks like MeTV and its ilk and shopping channels. Those make them money and can be received by any digital TV set, so it makes more sense financially than trying to do mobile TV or data stuff.

Besides all that, there is an argument that free OTA TV is a public good that far outweighs the opportunity cost of giving Verizon and at&t (and to a lesser degree T-Mobile and Sprint) yet more of it. They've already got enough spectrum to deliver 50Mbps+ to most anyone they care to. Most of the congestion and slowness comes from them not having a dense enough network of cell sites causing poor reception and/or a lack of fast enough backhaul from the individual cell sites, not any need for yet more spectrum.

We're at the point where building antennas and chipsets to handle the ridiculous number of different frequency bands is becoming more difficult and expensive. It isn't really worth it. Between OG cellular, PCS, AWS, SMR, and 700MHz, there is more than enough already allocated to the cell carriers. They've already got 200Mhz+ for crying out loud. Since they can reuse individual channels many times in a given area, they need less spectrum than a wide area broadcast architecture like ATSC.

Broadcast TV probably will eventually go away, but mainly because the FCC would prefer to get money for the spectrum through further auctions rather than continue giving it away for free to TV brosdcasters, not because of any technical need. The cell carriers will always buy anything the FCC makes available, regardless of actual need, just to prevent new entrants to the market.

There was a reasonable argument for giving them more up to AWS and maybe 700MHz because it made it easier to light up LTE by avoiding the need to preemptively cut capacity on the bands being used by the older stuff to make room for LTE, but at this point they can easily shuffle things around to make room when necessary.

Personally, I think if we're going to give up more of the TV spectrum it ought to be for a new ISM band. I'd rather the military quit hogging as much as they are and use that, though. They have far, far more spectrum than they actually need, but refuse to give any of it up because they would have to replace hardware that is using it. Never mind that much of that stuff never actually gets used anyway. They keep it for the same reason they refuse to let go of their unnecessarily large IPv4 address space allocation..inertia. They admit they don't actually need it, but worry that they might at some point in the future.
posted by wierdo at 11:22 AM on November 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

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