Thursday, January 15, 2009

Press Releases: Kill your antenna

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Listen, TV broadcasters: I've had enough of your pleading with me to call for a coupon to help me handle the "DTV transition." You're wasting my time — it doesn't affect me. And I have lots of company — though president-elect Barack Obama has asked for a delay to make sure everyone can participate, the change (shifting TV transmissions from analog to digital signals, requiring an antenna adapter) will affect only about 15 percent of Americans, according to government stats. (Everyone else has no TV or a digital TV, or gets their TV programming over cable, satellite, or the Internet — none of which will change one bit.)

But still, TV stations need all the viewers they can get, to keep ratings up so they can charge advertisers more money. And the public owns the airwaves, meaning we need to know how to access what's being broadcast over them.

Most of the purpose of this whole crazy undertaking is to use the airwaves more efficiently. Compared to digital signals, traditional analog transmissions consume more of the broadcast spectrum for an equivalent amount of information, so converting to digital gives us, the public, a net gain of available airwaves. From that surplus, the government has kept several frequencies to itself for emergency broadcasts, but sold most of the rest to private companies for a total of $19.6 billion, which funds a lot of government communications-infrastructure efforts. (A few spare "white spaces" in between allocated frequencies are also available to any user, which provides room for experimentation of the sort that launched the Wi-Fi revolution.)

A lot of those re-allocated airwaves will soon be used to provide long-distance wireless (or cellular) Internet access that can efficiently reach rural areas. It is already happening all over northern and downeast Maine, and it's a great way to bring far-flung parts of the country into the 21st century.

We should do more of this, and we know how to. Let's get all the spectrum back from TV broadcasters.

Face it: broadcast TV is hardly the way of the future. TV itself is fine — tons of people, including me, watch TV all the time. But we are not using our airwaves to their best, highest possible purpose. We could be using them — and the money made by selling rights to them to private Internet providers — to give Internet access to every American, everywhere in the country. We could subsidize Internet access for poor people, ensuring that they can participate fully in our economy and our society.

But of course the broadcasters want to hang onto their one-way communication monopoly. They definitely don't want a completely level content playing field, in which video producers tiny and huge would have equal access to every household. But they are our airwaves — not the broadcasters'. Let's use them for something real.

Press Herald Watch
Sale postponed The financing the prospective purchasers had hoped for has not yet come through. There is speculation in some quarters that they are waiting for a real fire-sale price before closing the deal. Maybe that's true, or maybe banks just aren't that excited about lending money to a questionable business model in a terrible economy.

Arbitration delayed Because the sale is postponed, so is arbitration in a dispute the Blethens have with their employees' union, over whether a new owner must continue to honor the existing union contract.

New free daily paper The owners of the Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire have announced that sometime in the next few weeks there will be a new free daily paper in our town, the Portland Daily Sun. It will circulate about 5000 copies, have a news staff of two reporters and an editor, operate out of Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops and a Munjoy Hill apartment, and print in Conway.