Whose spectrum is it anyway?

As the cost of digital television becomes more and more affordable, governments around the world are eyeing up the analog spectrum. Dates are being set for the analog switch-off, whether the public likes it or not.

When I was a child, mobile radio was used only by the military and emergency services. A great swathe of the spectrum below 1GHz was used solely for television. Is it an anachronism that what is usually a fixed receiver should use so much of the spectrum? With the technology available today, is it not reasonable to expect the television viewer to use satellite, fiber and wireless LAN to receive programming?

This status quo was laid down when there were no cell phones, no PDAs, no DVB-H, no Bluetooth, no WiFi. There was not the same demand for spectrum from mobile and wireless devices. The time we once devoted watching television now competes with Web surfing, electronic messaging and video games. Is it not reasonable that the spectrum should be apportioned to match this new use of our time?

It would all be fine and dandy, if not for the downside. You can buy a mid-size analog TV receiver for a little more than E100. An integrated DTV receiver starts at around E600. In a house with four receivers, that is a big difference.

Another issue is the flexible bandwidth. Analog television had a fixed bandwidth. Digital transmission can be compressed to fit more channels; the level of artifacts is traded against the number of channels. The end result is that picture quality can be worse than analog. There also is the lottery as to whether the picture and sound arrive in sync. Of course, digital television delivers many benefits; it supports widescreen, high definition and surround sound. Plus, it doesn't suffer from problems like ghosting. Now, the consumer has a choice between analog and digital; in 10 years, it all will be digital. By then, the increase in manufacturing volumes should make prices more competitive.

This could be seen as a technology tax on consumers. They must pay more for receivers so that the government can sell off the spectrum. Young people may take a different view; they have grown up with cell phones. They expect access to entertainment on the move. Why should the couch potatoes hog all the bandwidth?

Station operators have another view. As incumbents, they have access to spectrum at a discount. In an auction, they may well end up paying a lot more. Where is that to come from? I guess it will be the consumers who pay in the end.

The television industry has to come to terms with the fact that what was once its spectrum is not its by any special right.

Are we about to see analog television join the oil lamp and musket?

Send comments to: • dausterberry@primediabusiness.comwww.broadcastengineering.com