My 2 Cents: The Airwaves Are Not Ichthyostegas

By Dom Serafini

For a few years now, many experts, pundits, politicians, broadcasters and God knows who else, have been complaining that over-the-air frequencies are no longer needed for television. And because, today, TV is consumed via other forms of delivery, over-the- air stations and networks should give those frequencies back to the government. This request has been directed, in particular, at public or state-owned TV stations.

On the other hand, there are publications like Network Computing, which came up with a front-cover story about retiring "the wire," because wireless systems can do everything. Indeed, the magazine points out, "radio […offers] alternatives to expensive T1 lines," indicating T1 as high-capacity telephone lines.

To some people, this "spectrum vs. wire" tug-of-war could seem somewhat akin to "Intelligent Design": some sort of reverse evolution, as if humans were to turn into primates.

For others, over-the-air broadcast goes against scientific evolution. In their view, such primitive designs should evolve by vacating the spectrum. (As a sort of Ichthyostega, the primordial creature that evolved from fish to land-going animal by vacating the waters).

In the midst of all this, playing a sort of Solomon, are the Telcos: they worship the wire, but love the airways for their cellular business. But, let's proceed in order.

According to an editorial in Canada's The Globe and Mail, "Changing technology has rendered the very idea of public airwaves obsolete...People today get their audio and visual entertainment all sorts of ways, few of them on the 'public' airwaves."

Naturally, pressured by lobbyists and politicians, various governments around the world are eager to get those frequencies back, in order to rake in billions by selling them to the wireless sector, like any goods, instead of as a public resource.

Now, throughout the history of broadcasting, we've witnessed a changing spectrum of frequencies as a form of delivery: In the beginning there were the long waves, later replaced my medium-waves (the so-called AM stations), which were subsequently overshadowed by FM, then VHF (channel 2 through 13 in many countries), UHF (channels 14-83), SHF, EHF and so on.

We've reached a point where television is transported by so many over-the-air frequencies that the spectrum is becoming very congested. It is exactly the opposite of what some pundits want us to believe.

Listen to how Network Computing described this evolution: "Pity the poor cable. This faithful carrier of network traffic has seen technology after technology gain market share by vowing to put copper strands out of work. One technology following through on that promise is wireless."

In addition, the wireless sector is working on a standard called WiMAX, which promises the world at the tip of a finger-long antenna. This is why San Francisco wants to become the first fully wireless city in the world.

According to Rainbow Broadband's Russ Hamm, as he was quoted by Mediaware magazine, "Wireless is moving so quickly forward that we'll see a 100-MB connection within five years."

So, the question that we're facing is not whether over-the-air television is obsolete, but how over-the-air television will evolve. Perhaps, VHF and UHF frequencies are no longer part of this "Intelligent Design," but 900 MHz to 60 GHz frequencies are indeed.

Do I really care if RAI, TF1, NBC, City-TV, etc., are broadcast on VHF, UHF, SHF or EHF frequencies?

Cellular, or mobile telephony, has proven that television coming from the airwaves can be consumed anywhere. What will be important to have is a universal transport technology, such as IPTV (Internet Protocol) and some space in the spectrum that, contrary to some creationists' statements, still belongs to the general public-- not just to Microsoft et al.

Dom Serafini