One TV antenna per town?
September 24, 2006 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Why can't a community use tax $ to put up a single large television mast antenna and allow, say, the 100 highest bidding networks to broadcast, all from that same tower?

I just don't understand why there need to be so many tv broadcast antennas around town, or why I should have to pay for cable or satellite in order to recieve more than a few channels. Shouldn't there be a more efficient way of getting television to people?
posted by washburn to Technology (20 answers total)
Cable is the efficient way to do it.

The FCC has reclaimed most of the spectrum which was originally assigned for broadcast TV, to be used for other purposes. For instance, the spectrum which used to be used for channels 70-83 is now used for cell phones and pagers. The spectrum originally assigned for channels 52-69 is scheduled to be auctioned off for other uses in a few years.

Second, broadcast is inherently expensive because of the cost of the transmitters. The antenna is not the primary expense. Big television channels tend to broadcast 50,000 - 100,000 watts, and that costs a lot.

Eventually broadcast TV will go away entirely. Using RF to deliver it makes no sense economically when cable works so well. (At least if the cable company is competent.) And unlike broadcast TV, which even in the old days was limited by the spectrum available, there's not really any important limit on the number of channels that a digital cable system can deliver with high fidelity.

Moreover, it can easily handle the switch to HDTV, which is a real challenge for broadcast.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:19 PM on September 24, 2006

Well I think one reason companies wouldn't want to do this is that then they'd have to follow FCC content rules and make sure broadcasts didn't violate decency laws. I believe cable companies are limited only by their own standards and what their advertisers want to be associated with.

By not using public airways cable networks don't have to follow those guidlines, I think. Also by paying for a channel you're saying "I want to watch mature shows and unedited movies with all the F-bombs producers care to include. I for one do not want 'Rescue Me' to run on FOX because they'd have to edit it so much.
posted by Science! at 9:22 PM on September 24, 2006

RF signal strength decreases with the cube of distance, and it is blocked by terrain and urban features. Thus to reach all receivers in a given area, a single antenna would have to so powerful as to damage receivers close to it and harm people / animals. Hence multiple antennas broadcasting at reduced power to serve large areas.
posted by randomstriker at 9:37 PM on September 24, 2006

Actually, it's inverse square, not inverse cube, but the reality is more complicated because of things like terrain.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:45 PM on September 24, 2006

Regarding Science!'s point:

Do the FCC's rules apply to cable and satellite programming?

In the past, the FCC has enforced the indecency and profanity prohibitions only against conventional broadcast services, not against subscription programming services such as cable and satellite. However, the prohibition against obscene programming applies to subscription programming services at all times.

posted by chrominance at 9:53 PM on September 24, 2006

Oh, and regarding the above comments about distance and terrain, cable television was likely invented in Mahanoy City, PA by an enterprising television salesman who was frustrated with the poor reception he was getting because the city sat in a valley. He decided to put up an antenna on top of a hill, ran a wire back down to the store, and hooked it into his televisions. Soon people started asking him to run the wires to their houses as well, and voila—cable television was born.
posted by chrominance at 9:56 PM on September 24, 2006

This does happen, in a way. Here in Chicago the Sears Tower, the Hancock and the forthcoming Trump Tower all benefit from various city and state tax breaks. Part of the justification for this comes from the fact that the broadcast antenna space on these buildings constitutes a public service.

In reality, of course, renting out antenna space is quite lucrative. One of the towers on the Hancock was recently rebuilt to accommodate digital broadcasting for CBS.
posted by aladfar at 10:10 PM on September 24, 2006

A city could tax itself to put up a big antenna if it really wanted to.

But if I were one of the companies that makes cable programming, why would I want to bid to spend money to send my signal to Podunk when cable systems all over pay me for my channels? Cheaper just to ignore Podunk until they scream for cable or satellite to shut up their brats with the Disney teat.

I mean, I guess you could do this. But your "top 100 bidders" might well consist entirely of the broadcast networks, with PBS either absent or let on for ~free.

There are probably FCC problems with it as well. You'd end up with only one TV "station" in the city, even though it would broadcast different programming on multiple channels and all of its programming would be rebroadcast from other stations. And that one channel would be owned by the city government itself.

However, the prohibition against obscene programming applies to subscription programming services at all times.

That really seems like empty bluff and bluster. At the very least, it's difficult to reconcile with hardcore porn on cable (and satellite?), which some systems show.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:32 PM on September 24, 2006

The reason that the FCC doesn't apply decency standards to cable is because the Supreme Court won't let it. The rationale is a bit complex but basically, the more inherent limits there are on the number of simultaneous companies sending out information by some means or other, the more power SCOTUS grants the government to control content.

There's no inherent ceiling on the number of printing presses, and "press" is explicitly mentioned in the First Amendment, so the government has virtually no ability to limit what appears in newspapers and magazines. There are substantial inherent limits on commercial broadcast radio and television, and so the government has quite broad ability to censor what's carried.

Because there's no serious limit on how many channels can be carried by a cable system, and because it's possible to control which channels are or are not available to any given subscriber, the government is not permitted to censor cable TV.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:35 PM on September 24, 2006

In the past, the FCC has enforced the indecency and profanity prohibitions only against conventional broadcast services, not against subscription programming services such as cable and satellite. However, the prohibition against obscene programming applies to subscription programming services at all times.
posted by chrominance at 12:53 AM EST on September 25 [+fave] [!]

However: What are the statutes and rules regarding the broadcast of obscene, indecent, and profane programming? Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits the utterance of “any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication.”^

Is cable radio communication? I think not.
posted by caddis at 10:36 PM on September 24, 2006

In some countries, this is pretty much what they do. For example, in the U.K. most (all?) of the broadcasting transmitters & sites are owned & run by Crown Castle; they also have a fair footprint in the USA running mobile phone infrastructure for many telcos.

In Australia, Macquarie / BSA - a combination of an investment bank and the old PMG / OTC / Telecom broadcast branches - does much the same thing, usually on an own/leaseback arrangement.
posted by Pinback at 10:50 PM on September 24, 2006

A product of both the geographic inaccessibility of terrestrial broadcast signals and a television spectrum allocation scheme that favored urban markets, cable systems, also called "community antenna television" or CATV, grew out of simple amateur ingenuity. Retransmission apparatuses such as extremely high antenna towers or microwave repeater stations, often erected by television repair shops or citizens groups, intercepted over-the-air signals and redelivered them to households that could not receive them using regular VHF or UHF antennas. The earliest cable television systems, established in 1948, are usually credited to Astoria, Oregon or Mahoney City, Pennsylvania, both mountainous, rural communities.

So, yeah, cable retransmission was the first communal television infrastructure, so that says something about the barrier to entry. Also, Astoria, OR and Mahoney City, PA both had early cable. But Astoria wins because they had Kindergarten Cop. Ahem!
posted by Skwirl at 10:56 PM on September 24, 2006

Another way of accomplishing the same thing is to put the TV broadcast facility in a geosynchonous orbit. No nasty towers, nearly uniform signal coverage throughout the service area, and with enough spot beam high powered satellites, you could have as many local channel choices as you'd like. To date, local stations haven't wanted to pay for transponder time on the DirecTV fleet, but transponder time is available on other satellite networks, with Ku band transponder time leasing in bulk from from $250 to $800/hour, which is well within the comparitive cost range for capital outlay, maintenance and operating power cost of a conventional terrestrial broadcast plant. Partly, local affiliates have resisted moving to satellite, because their competitive hurdle, and a lot of their book valuations are based squarely in maintaining the economic value of their existing broadcast licenses. Furthermore, much of their working capital has been consumed by the FCC mandated conversion to DTV, which has some of them running both an analog and a digital station, simultaneously, for now, several years. And finally, to ensure the terrestrial broadcasters have a chance to recover their DTV expenditures, the FCC has done rulemaking to force consumer electronic companies to make DTV tuners part of all TV sets sold in the U.S. now. If they had made rules making satellite tuners mandatory, the consumer cost of satellite would have disappeared, too.

Still, somebody's got to take care of the poor broadcasters, I guess. You wouldn't want to be getting their equipment bills, or their power bills.

But there is a market opportunity for visionaries on the high satellite frontier. When would you like to start independent service for your town?
posted by paulsc at 10:58 PM on September 24, 2006

Why can't a community borrow capital at low, low government interest rates to install a fibre optic network that serves every home and business, and then charge retail ISP's an infrastructure access fee that covers the cost of the loan over say, 15 years, plus maintenance - which would be less than any ISP could possibly hope to pay for setting up its own distribution infrastructure?

Because this would "distort the market".

Of course, when a privately run monopoly or duopoly telco does the same thing, and then screams for legislative protection to fend off competing infrastructure because it can't afford to sell access at bottom dollar, it's all just peachy.

I think the real answer to your original question is simply "because public ownership of public assets is no longer fashionable."
posted by flabdablet at 11:03 PM on September 24, 2006

Is cable radio communication? I think not.

The key part of the section I posted should've been the "indecency and profanity" bits. As I'm not an American, I don't know if the obscenity regulations also applied in practice and thus couldn't comment, but obviously HBO and Showtime show plenty of nudity and course language, and a lot of it probably falls out of the traditional safe harbour time.

Anyways, the point was to provide backup to the assertion that the FCC has traditionally been hands off with cable and satellite programming.
posted by chrominance at 12:26 AM on September 25, 2006

Actually, it turns out that cable channels which carry advertising pay the cable systems to carry their channels. Effectively, they give the cable system a cut of the advertising revenue. And sometimes the cable system gets a couple of minutes of advertising per hour they can fill in with local ads.

Premium channels like HBO charge for their material since they have no other source of revenue. The cable systems in turn charge subscribers for those channels, and pass part of the money on to the premium channel.

But even for channels like "Food TV" or "Discovery", the amount they pay a cable system to deliver their channel to the system's subscribers is considerably less than it would cost them to physically broadcast, because transmitters are so expensive (and because of the power bill). And broadcast would require them to license channels from the FCC, and there's all kinds of ridiculous regulations and obligations placed on anyone who broadcasts that cable channels don't have to deal with, and not just regarding censorship.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:29 AM on September 25, 2006

I think the real answer to your original question is simply "because public ownership of public assets is no longer fashionable." - flabdablet

In the US.

YMMV elsewhere.
posted by raedyn at 7:58 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers--quite a few of these seem like "best" answers in my uneducated opinon.

I suppose I asked this questions just because I have a bit of resentmet at the fact that I'm now supposed to pay $40 for cable, internet, cellphone, tivo, satellite radio, cell phone internet, my monthly music subscription and who knows what else. As Steven C. Den Beste observed, even those who dislike cable and don't watch much tv will be forced to pay for cable soon, if we want to have accesst to televison broadcasting.

I find the constant multiplication of such fees very annoying, and I wish that we could move a towards a model where at least a basic level access to information would be provided as a public good, instead of through a patchwork of monopolistic media companties that (naturally) work constantly to charge the most they can manage to. Whether through cable or satellite or community internet, I do hope that the future of broadcasting isn't one in which public access to information and entertainment is only a memory.
posted by washburn at 10:12 AM on September 25, 2006

Steven C. Den Beste wrote: Actually, it's inverse square, not inverse cube, but the reality is more complicated because of things like terrain.

Ideally it's just a simple 1/r with all energy directed at the horizon. An isotropic radiator would be wasteful.
posted by ryanrs at 11:38 PM on September 25, 2006

In the US.

YMMV elsewhere.


I'm in Australia. Our mileage is rapidly declining to that of the US in most of the important ways. Our present Federal and State governments all seem to have privatization bees in their collective bonnets.

Personally, I blame Standard and Poor's.

An S&P AAA rating has become something of a Holy Grail for those in charge of this joint, and apparently S&P won't give you one of those if you borrow to finance public infrastructure.

The fact that even AA-rated government debt is still cheaper than private debt seems to have been lost somewhere in the shuffle; public-private partnerships are all the rage for major infrastructure projects, and we, the poor dumb citizens, end up paying through the nose for their consequences. Blarg.
posted by flabdablet at 5:52 AM on September 26, 2006

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