Countries around the world are announcing the date for analog switch-off. In many cases, the freed spectrum is to be auctioned to the highest bidder. When television started, the spectrum chosen was empty. Since then, many new demands for the space have developed. We now expect mobile data and communications services — the ability to connect wherever we are.
Users of battery-powered communicators are well within their rights to ask why a device that is predominately line-powered like a television receiver cannot also use cable for the distribution of programs. While this may be fine if you live in a metropolitan area, for the rural dweller, RF is the only economical way to deliver television.
The balance that society has to decide is which is more important: freeing up the spectrum for new applications or serving those who don't live in cities. Most homes fall within the footprint of satellites, so the rural dweller would not be deprived of television. It's the terrestrial signal that is at issue.
Aside from issues of spectrum, many see the switch-off as an end of an era. The future represents either an opportunity for new services or competition for the traditional revenue sources of television. Not only is there more competition for the eyeballs, but also for many the novelty of the television medium has worn off. When radio started, newspapers had to change to reflect the fact that they no longer delivered breaking news. Television news developed as radio with pictures but has long since become a medium in its own right. We are now seeing the emergence of other media such as blogging and podcasting providing competition for television.
Along with the conversion to digital has been the emergence of a more traditional type of competition. Broadcasters have historically operated in a highly regulated environment with controlled competition from cable companies and telcos forbidden to compete. That is now changing with the triple-play services coming from the telcos. They don't make programs, but they do compete for revenue from the public. The area most at risk is the advertising-funded model. Will this be replaced by subscriptions, pay-per-view, sponsorship or product placement? We are slowly seeing the behemoth of VOD becoming mainstream. Combined with PVRs, consumers — not broadcasters — are running the schedules. It certainly makes business models more complex.
That said, a glance at the ratings shows that the traditional networks still dominate the charts. While they may have half the audience of 20 years ago, there is still a vast popular appetite for traditional television programming. Television use is not waning; it is just changing.
The time has come for television to relinquish its profligate use of spectrum and welcome the analog switch-off. The challenge for broadcast engineers is to enable this revolution. It's time broadcasters realized that digital transmission offers opportunities never before possible. Those that seize those opportunities will prosper. Those that don't deserve what they get.