Abolish Free TV – Intel lobbyist

TV and Tech industries remain two utopias apart

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IDF Nothing illustrates the gulf between logician Americans and metaphysical Europeans like their respective approaches to spectrum policy.

The idealistic US deregulation lobby rallies round concepts such as "freedom", as if they're absolutes, rather that social agreements. Networks must be open and free, and vested interests conspire darkly in Washington DC against them.

The idealistic Europeans, who are more concerned with outcomes than absolutes, and who have successfully delivered low-cost radio to the masses, find this rhetoric baffling. "What would happen if the roads were unregulated?" Nokia's Erik Anderson told us last year: "What if safety regulations were scrapped and the largest and heaviest cars were considered the safest? People would be driving tanks down the street."

In truth, we need both sides to be right. Advances in computer processing mean we can benefit from looser regulation. But we still need a playbook to ensure that this unusual resource isn't squandered, or held captive by a ClearChannel or an Enron. The USA's record on deregulation doesn't inspire confidence: it has so far been an excuse for speculative bubbles that open the door to market manipulation and 'consolidation' that reduces real choices.

Gulf War

Yesterday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco these arguments were echoed as a broadcaster and the FCC's chief engineer wandered into the Lion's Den. But it only served to illustrate the gulf between the two industries: technology and broadcasting.

Intel wants future technology, such as "agile radios", to find and use the dead space between TV channels. The broadcasters argue that today's TV sets lack the fidelity to leave adjacent channels alone.

So Intel's I-Street, Washington DC lobbyist Peter Pitsch (his official title is 'Communications Policy Director, Government Affairs') argued that the abundant dead space between used channels offered "beachfront property". But innovation was thwarted by "command and control", which he said "still predominates in regulation; it's cumbersome, litigation-prone and politicized."

On the other hand, Victor Tawil, senior vice president for the Association for Maximum Service Television, said that spectrum couldn't be used without interfering with TV tuners.

"We don't think there's enough spectrum," he said. "It's congested, at least in the major markets." But he said that "receivers have problems that prevent us from making more efficient use of the spectrum," because of adjacent channel intererence. "Analog TV receivers - and there are 300 million of them - have poor interference rejection. Little is known about interference rejection of Digital TV receivers," he said, which have so far proved "better but not much better". And interference on a digital set means loss of picture.

Pretty Vacant

Bruce Franca, deputy chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology, was sympathetic to his fellow technologists at Intel, and has carefully begun to free up some spectrum. There were a lot of vacant channels, he agreed, and new technology could make use of it. "The FCC is starting to think different."

But we were astonished by the reaction to one of the first questions from the floor, which illustrated how far apart the two sides really are.

"Why do the broadcasters need any spectrum at all?" asked a questioner.

"I just want to say," beamed Intel's Pitsch, "that I didn't plant that question."

Free-to-air TV in the United States is dismal enough already, we hardly need to remind you. It's funded not by a compulsory license, which gives UK citizens the high quality BBC, but by a non-stop barrage of fast food and pharmaceutical advertisements. By comparison, cable or satellite - which also sports the advertisements, so viewers get to pay twice - is an expensive proposition. And Intel wants to get rid of it completely, if only it could.

If the deregulation, or 'Open Spectrum' lobby here wants to succeed in its really rather noble goals, it's going to borrow a pitch from the European playbook. Depriving the poor of free television, we suggest, isn't the best way to achieve its goals.

Particularly with President Edwards in the White House. ®

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