Broadcast Battle

You can’t see them. You can’t hear them. You can’t touch them. Yet they are responsible for an enormous amount of our communication and entertainment. Most people would use the general term “radio waves” to refer to that part of the electromagnetic spectrum with wavelengths longer than visible light, but these are also used for cell phones, television stations, cordless phones, wireless networks, and an enormous range of other functions. Part of the reason to switch from analog to digital television was so that large sections of these frequencies could be put to other uses.

The FCC has been charged by Congress to come up with a plan for a nationwide wireless mobile broadband system, and industry groups are weighing in on the subject with extensive comments. Some sources claim that broadcast television is not using all of its assigned spectrum efficiently, and that some could be reassigned for broadband Internet services. Understandably, the TV broadcasters are asking the FCC to keep their hands off the TV frequencies.

The cell phone system has transformed both personal and business lifestyles. The Internet has also had a similar impact. A system that would give us broadband access to Internet content wherever we are would no doubt have a similar transformational effect. It could move us from the one-to-many model of radio and television broadcasts, and replace it with an on-demand system where individual consumers could choose what information they wanted, any time, anywhere. And just as people are giving up their landlines for cell phones, a wireless broadband system might eventually mean the end of broadcast television, cable service, and wired Internet access; the only wire coming to your home or office might be the power line.

The stakes are high in this debate about how we can best use the finite set of frequencies, so you can expect some strong statements coming from all the camps who might have an interest in the outcome. It’s not something that will be settled overnight, but it’s a major project with significant implications for how we get our information and entertainment in the future.