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McAdams On: How Broadband Saves Broadcasting

Broadcasters need to pull a flanking maneuver with the powers that have pitched them in opposition to broadband. Such a strategy awaits them in the marketplace now. One iteration is Roku. I had the opportunity to hook up one of these babies last night, and it’s brilliant.

Roku is one of those ’Net-streaming peripherals for the TV. It’s less than $100, the size of a router, and possibly the easiest digital electronic device to set up ever invented. It took me around 20 minutes and a phone call to the friend who gave it to me, mostly because I skipped the directions and just plugged it in. With even minimal attention, it’s 20 minutes or so from unpacking to watching a movie on TV.

If I owned a TV station, I’d give these things away. I’d sponsor seminars on how to use them. Every PBS member station should throw away the mugs and shopping bags and start shipping Rokus or one of the other similar peripherals. How and why these things haven’t been hailed as the answer to a la carte programming is beyond me. (As admittedly, many things are... like how the broadcast industry expects to survive once the median age of congress equals a few less rings on a tree trunk.)

Mine is exclusively an over-the-air TV household for a variety of reasons. Most involve better things to do with my money than pay for a ton of TV shows that irritate my gag reflex just to get a couple I like. I also get beautiful, minimally compressed video over-the-air, compared to the cataracted dross offered by the only multichannel pay provider serving this ’hood.

Now, for the one-time price of the hardware and less than $10 a month, I have on-demand access to several thousand movies and TV episodes, music and other stuff I’ve not yet bothered with. There is no need to pay a cable or DBS operator a dime. I have a Terk HDTVa that brings in the big sporting events, all the biggest TV events, local, regional and national news, as well as hard news and analysis in the form of “Frontline” and the “NewsHour.” For what do I need cable?

It’s true that cable companies have a lot of people locked up with bundled billing for broadband, voice and video. It’s true they’re often one of two broadband providers available to a given household. It’s true that broadband providers in general are skinning people and lying about connections speeds.

All these things are true, and all the more reason for broadcasters to support localized broadband initiatives that provide reliable, competitive service. A), they have more participatory opportunity with localized initiatives, and B) every one that’s launched while lawmakers futz with the National Broadband Plan attenuates its argument for spectrum reassignment.

The National Broadband Plan assumes a great deal about technology that’s not been demonstrated. Ubiquitous wireless broadband across the country is a pipe dream. There will be reception holes just as there are now with digital television. There will be unserved and underserved areas because the economics just aren’t there. There will be interference and congestion issues in high-population areas because radio frequency signals bleed, spill and bounce.

A true National Broadband Plan would enable municipalities to launch and support their own services on the least utilized frequencies in their markets. Broadcasters would be partners rather than perceived as the resistant, petulant fossils they are now being depicted as by FCC leadership.

Streaming delivery and broadcast are a very potent combination with a nearly irresistible price point. This is competing. This is the marketplace. Not D.C. Not Capitol Hill. The game doesn’t have to be over.