Just when you thought that over-the-air digital TV has settled into a new norm, various activities are showing that change continues-and free, over-the-air TV is still evolving.
Last month, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology approved the "Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum" (JOBS) Act of 2011 with a bipartisan vote of 17 to 6. The legislation is the culmination of five hearings and extensive negotiations to use voluntary incentive auctions to make more efficient and effective use of the public’s airwaves and support establishment of a nationwide, interoperable, broadband public safety network. A discussion draft was released (see: http://bit.ly/uGjD1G), outlining various proposals that would modify the use of spectrum and define how broadcasters would be compensated for voluntary givebacks.
But there’s an interesting provision of the bill that could change over-the-air broadcasting in a revolutionary way. Broadcasters would be allowed a waiver of the service rules of the FCC to permit the licensee, subject to interference protections, to make flexible use of the spectrum to provide services other than broadcast television services. This provision, however, has conditions: "Such waiver shall only remain in effect while the licensee provides at least one broadcast television program stream on such spectrum at no charge to the public," reads the draft.
Translation? The provision appears to allow broadcasters the option of transmitting non-backward compatible signals without a need to service existing DTV viewers, as long as at least one program is sent for free. This seems to pave the way for an entirely new over-the-air content delivery system, while allowing broadcasters to keep their spectrum.
So, is a new broadcasting system likely? Some broadcasters say it is already needed to maintain the value of broadcasting and to compete with alternate delivery media. According to Mark Aitken, VP of Advanced Technology of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a new standard for digital TV transmission in the United States will emerge within three years. (Aitken is also chairman of the ATSC TSG/S4 specialist group responsible for Mobile DTV standardization.) "What I am talking about is a broadcast overlay," said Aitken, speaking at the October SMPTE conference. "It is the extension outside of the home of the download side of the (cell) radio network." Aitken envisions the deployment of a hybrid "heteronet," or heterogeneous network in which digital television broadcasting is overlaid onto the wireless infrastructure to leverage the strength of television - one-to-many transmission of video - and that of the wireless Internet and cell networks, the many-to-many networks.
A broadcasting system that provides Internet-like functions (e.g., interactivity) would have a better chance of competing with other media-and work is already ongoing to specify such a system by both broadcasters and consumer electronics companies. Change is not only inevitable, but is accelerating to address the new ways that content is being delivered. It was just two-and-a-half years ago that NTIA concluded the digital-to-analog converter box program, spending $1.5B to provide over-the-air TV viewers with boxes that allowed viewers to continue receiving free over-the-air television services after analog transmissions ceased. If the JOBS Act goes all the way to the President, and is signed, the FCC will be directed to carry it out, at which point, it’s quite possible that another viewer transition plan - perhaps with another converter box program - may be needed. Paying for such a program will be an interesting discussion, given the current economic climate. If the bill moves fast enough, it may even enter the campaign rhetoric of next year’s elections. Ahh, progress! -agc