I Want My DTV

Or, radio waves killed video's star. Michael Powell, the FCC chairman, said at PC Forum today (see Dan Gillmor's account; scroll to bottom) that the FCC knows that digital television (DTV) won't be here by 2006, which previous chairman Kennard has been saying for years now.

The problem is one of reallocation: we have no comprehensive spectrum management policy in the U.S., only a sham of one in which Congress and the president can directly affect what radio waves are owned or given to whom.

DTV is a weird case: TV makers are much, much more interested in creating a market for high-definition televisions (HDTV) than anyone else has seemed to be. Broadcasters became interested when they pushed through an arrangement by which they would be loaned extra frequencies for the transition from NTSC (on channels 2 to the upper 70s) until the DTV revolution was over.

Effectively, broadcasters are now sitting on tens of billions of dollars of free bandwidth while consumers show little or no interest in overpriced television sets. Nobody initially bothered to ask cable companies about how they would handle these signals, either, nor whether digital converters would work with NTSC TV sets. A couple of years ago, one firm (with an axe to grind) demonstrated how broadcast DTV signals might not penetrate buildings with enough intensity to provide the benefits of digital clarity.

Part of the plot, not insidious, behind the DTV transition was to focus the spectrum use of television on the sub-channel-50 level, and sell off the unused higher frequencies (UHF) to new services, as well as reallocate bandwidth from other ranges where the sweet spot of penetration (needed for things like Wi-Fi and cell phones) aren't as important.

Parts of the government and Congress would like to massively reassign military and government use of frequencies in those sweet spots, but the incumbents are fighting for a lot of good reasons (for once), including decreased military preparedness and the massive, multi-double-digit cost of migration.

And this migration is, of course, predicated on a formula: DTV adoption in geographically assigned areas must exceed a certain amount before the FCC can declare the transition in that area complete. In the interim, they have pushed old UHF stations off the very top of the range over the last few years.

3G is tied up in the same mess: the government can't free enough frequency in the right place (much less harmonized with Europe's frequency decisions) and this is frustrating the CTIA (cell industry trade group), the Europeans, and other folks.

Bottom line: it's already too late.

New technologies like ultra-wideband (UWB) broadcast may, in fact, save us from ourselves by using spectrum in fashions that overlay without (we hope) interferring. The current approach has led us into a indecipherable, untrackable quagmire in which no contiguous ranges are available as we open up in the actual future of wireless digital communication.