Well, the sequel is never as good as the original. But, I wrote about Back to the Future before. There's lots of news.
The FCC’s TV auction plan is in place. If you’re not familiar with it and you’re A) a broadcaster, B) an advertiser, C) an agency person or, D) a viewer who likes HD television, you might want to get familiar with it.
Here’s the executive summary:
· Over-the-air television takes a lot of the radio frequency spectrum
· The FCC wants more spectrum allotted to personal communications services like wireless Internet/broadband. They want to be able to auction off spectrum to increase revenue to the government
· The FCC has proposed allowing telecasters to combine their services onto a single channel, freeing up spectrum. For this, each telecaster would receive a payment
Hey! That’s pretty neat. Let’s get channels 7 & 9 & 13* to combine inside one channel, say, “7”. They’d keep their own identities, branding and other associated equity – even their number – but they’d all be contained in the channel that was formerly allocated solely to the owners of “7”.
That means that the frequencies that “9” and “13” occupied are now vacated and can be reassigned for PCS – through auction. And, per the commission, the broadcasters so “sacrificing” their spectrum, will be rewarded financially.
Still cool? Do you see everyone as a winner? As the old army joke goes, “Not so fast, Mullany.”
When you put two or three stations inside a single channel, something has to give. That give is on signal quality. Without going into detail, it means that HD evaporates. Under the current – and currently discussed – systems, there’s no not enough room inside 6mHz to cram multiple HD channels. In fact, you won’t see two 720i signals inside the 6mHz channel without some significant adjustment to coding.
Fine, Len. What does that have to do with me?
I guess first, the issue is that over-the-air 1080i and 720p – and maybe 720i may disappear from stations which choose to band together in a single channel. With 8VSB, we already stuff 10 pounds of, uh, stuff in a 5 pound bag. So there’s not much room for the higher quality signals.
Now that may be ameliorated by the fact that broadcasters could still supply the higher-definition signal to cable system headends, telcos, and to DTH satellite uplinks. So subscribers to these services could still see HD. But for the 20 or so percent who view over-the-air, well, thanks for playing. Your HD set will do its best to upconvert 480.
There is (are) a slew of issues:
Is there a conflict of interest on the part of broadcasters which own or are owned by cable systems? Does Comcast care if over-the-air viewers get 480i? Heck, that should drive more viewers to cable for the quality.
Does anyone really care about over-the-air? Maybe broadcast television becomes like AM – lower quality, poorer resolution and looking for a niche that draws viewers.
Does broadcast turn to the PCS guys to distribute their product on portable devices? If so, who needs hi-def on a small screen? But then, as devices grow in size, there’s that need for higher resolution – which 480 won’t be able to deliver.
And what about the future. If you’re new to this issue, you’re probably new to 4K, too, which is Ultra HD. The concept – which was viewable at 2012 NAB – provides for a standard that is 3840x2160 in resolution, or about 5 times (linear or over 20 times total) the resolution of 480 and twice that of 1080. Like I said, there’s already 10 pounds of stuff in the bag, so unless the compression scheme includes instructions like, “Imagine a lake with a boat on it…” there’s no way we’ll ever see 4K over the air. You can read more here.
There are plenty more – you can think through them. They all spin a pretty sad story for a medium. But do we really need over-the-air distribution? Is it OK to forsake the 20 percent who view via OTA so that more people can get broadband?
Just follow the money.
· The PCS and cellular lobbies are far stronger than broadcast
· The NAB is living somewhere in the 1930’s. I hear they’re considering an award to Vladimir Zworykin
· Cable and broadcast integration and cross ownership means the broadcasters have less to lose. In fact, if they take the bait, there may be lots of money for them
· The demos of those 20 percent, well, pretty low importance
In its announcement, the FCC says that it, “…expects a healthy and vibrant broadcasting industry to thrive after the auction…” which is a lot like telling a patient that, “you’ll be much better without that lousy heart and those kidneys.”
They held a workshop – Broadcaster LEARN. You can check out the video on the NPRM for the auction here.
In the meantime, keep in mind that the average viewer has no idea this is happening. No thought that part of the value of HD is being rendered obsolete almost immediately after the FCC – and congress – mandated its implementation in the first place. And they won’t figure it out until the resolution drops like a rock and they’re told by their local station that they need to subscribe to cable, telco, satellite, some paid service in order to get those lines of resolution.
*Note that currently, those channel numbers are carry-overs from analog days. Your channel “7” may have been on the actual channel 7 (174-180mHz) but moved to another 6mHz block yet through channel virtualization, everyone