The end of free HDTV?

The CEA is pushing to reduce or eliminate free HDTV broadcasts. Good? Bad? Vote!

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
3 min read

Update, June 10, 2011: CEA President Gary Shapiro responds

The Consumer Electronics Association recently commissioned a poll that found that fewer than 8 percent of US households use over-the-air broadcast as their sole means of receiving television programming. This number has been descending, according to the CEA, since 2005.

It is the CEA's position that because fewer and fewer households are getting their TV from over-the-air (OTA), the wireless spectrum used for these broadcasts should be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

In other words, do away with free over-the-air broadcasts as we know it.

While it's true that most U.S. households use cable or satellite for the television signals; in most cases this is a choice to pay for these services.

Other families either cannot afford to pay for cable/satellite, or prefer the available from over the air.

So the question is, do you use over-the-air broadcasts? If you don't, do you feel it's a good idea to sell off this spectrum, when the public will never be able to regain this bandwidth for free use in the future? Or, do you feel, as CEA President Gary Shapiro does, that "free market dynamics" will find the best use of these frequencies.


Gary Shapiro, June 9, 2011:

Wow - all this drama for something I never said. Please show me where I said we should get rid of ota broadcasting. Using a kernel of truth (CEA's support for repurposing some broadcast spectrum) to imply I am advocating an elimination of free OTA broadcasting is not only questionable journalism, it is not true.

In fact, CEA supports the bipartisan effort to repurpose some broadcast spectrum. The broadcasters even say they support the voluntary incentive auction to accomplish this!

Indeed, NAB (the broadcasters) and CEA have both invested in a company, Syncbak, which allows you to use slivers of broadcast spectrum to get the local broadcast signal on and through a computer.

The issue is whether it is in the public interest for broadcasters to use their free eight year licenses to dominate the most valuable spectrum when a small portion of the nation actually relies on free ota.

Please consider this a formal request to correct this story.

Thank you, Mr. Shapiro, for taking the time to respond. It is clear that you feel this is as important an issue as we do. Here is the quote from the CEA press release where the results of the poll were announced:

Over-the-air TV was once the defining distribution platform," said Gary Shapiro, CEA president and CEO. "But using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense. Congress should pass legislation to allow for incentive auctions so free market dynamics can find the best purposes for underused broadcast spectrum, such as wireless broadband."

The concern that I and others have is that once this spectrum is sold, it can never be recovered. In addition, the current nature of over-the-air HDTV will change, and not for the better. The CEA/CTIA's Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auctions white paper (PDF) itself says that in the "majority" of Top 30 markets, some stations will have to give up/sell their licenses (go off the air) or channel share with other stations (assured quality loss?).

From a strictly free-TV perspective, this doesn't seem great. Of course, the situation is larger than that. CEA Senior Vice President for Industry Affairs Jason Oxman wrote an excellent response to the HDGuru.com article on this, and we responded with our rebuttal.

It's clear we are coming from fundamental differences of opinion on this, but I'm sure we can both agree that everyone should read more on this topic. Here are several places to start:

CEA/CTIA's Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auctions white paper (PDF) (lays out their position)

CEA Study: Consumers are tuning out over-the-air TV

Over-the-air TV homes now include 46 million consumers (showing different OTA customer numbers)

CEA cord-cutting survey (PDF)

The Future of TV (sponsored by the NAB)

Wiki article on spectrum Management (a must-read)
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration's fantastic graphical representation of the wireless spectrum in JPG from Wikipedia or PDF from ntia.doc.gov.