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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Change it, Rebuild it, Move it, Take it off the Air. Broadcasters and PCS Spectrum

The headline says, “The FCC Is Promising Big Payouts for Local TV Stations That Go Off the Air.”1 Well, with respect to Dana Carvey, “Isn’t that special.”
Let me get this straight:  In the mid-nineties, when the government and administration were running record deficits (don’t let that “peace dividend” fool you) they went looking for new revenue.  
Well, alrighty, then…digital television.
Now, to be sure, we had been investigating DTV as a replacement for the weary NTSC for some time.  But it bumped into itself at every turn.  SPMTE, NAB, PBS, NTIA and others conducted numerous tests, all designed to fit 50 pounds of, uh, stuff in a 5 pound bag.  Yeah, 50 – actually more when you look at the bandwidth demands of a digital signal.  Then, once they got all that in a bag, they had to find a way to deliver it without the bag breaking.  You’d think we’d be smart enough to pick the most robust system consistent with the compression we needed (that necessary for the 6 MHz “five-pound bag” we wanted to keep.) 
And, true to form, ATSC chose 8VSB.  Brings back memories of the Magnavox AM stereo system.  In this case, at least, some people liked it.  
Everyone swallowed hard and implemented it.  It brought with it a lot of promises, not the least of which was multiple channels within the 6 MHz bandwidth.  That was a sacred value, the width of an analog channel.  
And everyone changed.  They really embraced it.  OK, June 12, 20092 was declared the final, final, really final, We’re not kidding final date for turning off the analog signal and no one had a choice.  
The transition meant billions of dollars of plant upgrades – from camera to transmitter and news van to file storage.  Everything had to be upgraded.  And we did that, too.
Some stations immediately launched second channels, the so-called “dot-two” channels offering additional programming.  A few even added dot-three and more, choosing to keep their main channel at 480 lines.
Networks began feeding in HD – a huge additional cost to them.  Do the quick math on a golf tournament or NFL game with 20 or more cameras, multiple replay devices and recorders, backhaul then studio and control room changes and, finally, HD distribution.  You’ll get to a number somewhere around the yearly GDP of a South American country. 
But it was worth it.  Worth all the expense to deliver great digital television to the masses.  (sarcasm)
Should I quit here?  Not without mentioning that the real reason for the move to digital was the government’s recognition that they could move most stations to the UHF band, freeing up, a great deal of spectrum in the VHF band to auction off to personal communications services (PCS).  That was responsible for the cutoff date, the development of digital and all of the money spent by broadcasters to convert.  The extra channels within the 6 MHz bandwidth became carrots, as did a number of regulatory concessions the commission offered to broadcasters when they moved.  Don't kid yourself; it was about the money.
Now, the commission is asking stations to take a bribe – fall to the canvas, if you will – in order for the PCS guys like Verizon, AT&T and the rest to have additional bandwidth to distribute their streaming fare on a 1:1 basis.
I wrote about the inefficiency of 1:1 awhile back.  To date, the ratio of bandwidth costs for 1:1 to bandwidth costs for 1:many hasn’t changed.  It’s still abysmal.  
But we’re going to move forward with that.  In fact, the government is proposing to pay the broadcasters for the spectrum so that they can auction it off to the PCS guys.  From their point of view, it’s “better.”
It could be a windfall – a station in LA could receive over a half billion dollars to turn off the transmitter.  That's a “B” you see there.
Once again, the Libra feels very strongly both ways: 
·         It’s a free market
·         PCS can be important
·        Stations could easily exist by serving their relayed customers (cable, satellite, copper) with the direct feed most of them now use
Then again,
·        If you’re that willing to give up the frequencies, where’s that public “interest, convenience and necessity” you’re supposed to be operating under
·        What about that [small] percentage of people who rely on OTA signals (I’d add away-from-home but given the 8VSB standard, away from home or portable viewing isn’t possible in many locations.)
·        If the commission’s actions are, in and of themselves, in the public interest, why should stations get any compensation?  How about another auction at the end of a station’s current license term.  Verizon and AT&T, Scripps and Linn, get out your checkbooks
Broadcasters have gotten the short end of the stick on this so far.  The minute the conversions to HD finished, the industry began nipping at their heels.  Channel repacking, channel movement3 and now channel vacation.  Upgrade an entire facility just to turn it off.  Ditch your dot-twos and combine with another broadcaster to save that precious spectrum.
As I showed in one of my earlier writings, there isn’t enough spectrum – DC to white light – to accommodate streaming to everyone all the time.  Do we really want to try?  Is you sending me a funny video of the squirrel in your back yard treed by a cat more important than news coverage of a major chemical spill?  No?  Well how about more important than The People’s Court or ET.
The commission is forming a task force to go on the road to sell in the idea to broadcasters.  Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know?
2September 12, 2015 for LPTV stations
3NB:  A number of stations lobbied hard to keep their VHF assignments in the conversion to digital.  They found out the hard way that the digital envelope behaves differently compared to analog and that it penetrates building far less reliably.  That prompted a number of filings to move to the very UHF channels they reviled.