Spoutin' Off: Skip the cable TV and go straight to broadband


By Michael Rau

October 21, 2008


To paraphrase a famous comedian, this column is about – nothing.

Okay. That's not exactly true. It's actually about something referred to as “white space”, and what it might mean for you.

First, a definition. In this context, the term white space applies to ranges of the radio frequency spectrum between those used by existing entities and services such as radio and TV broadcasters, cellular services providers, and other users of wireless services.

These frequencies will open up next February when the nationwide switch to digital TV is completed.

The reason we're even talking about white space is because of a recently released report from the Federal Communications Commission which, after exhaustive tests performed over several years, determined that these frequencies could be used without any significant interference with signals transmitted over currently assigned frequencies.

This report opens up many possibilities for you and me. Manufacturers are already gearing up to provide a new range of wireless devices that may transmit and receive at a much faster speed than current Wi-fi and similar devices.

But this isn't what I find exciting about the possibilities presented by opening up these frequencies.

It's no secret that I feel tremendous antipathy towards U.S. providers of program retransmission services, such as cable and satellite companies, as well as providers of Internet broadband services – which in any given area, such as ours, are usually the exact same companies. The major cellular services that provide wireless broadband are no better.

In America, they have an absolute stranglehold on providing these services, and the fees they charge are so grossly out of proportion with those of providers in the rest of the world as to reach the level of the perverse. If American providers had to compete in those environments using their current business models, they'd be crushed.

Something has to break this monopoly, and up until now, our government has protected the providers rather than us consumers, despite the fact that these companies use hundreds of thousands of miles of public right-of-ways to run their cable or fiber lines.

The most profound recommendation to come from the FCC is that a significant portion of these unused frequencies be used to drastically enhance the availability of wireless broadband Internet access throughout the country.

This is huge! Imagine getting broadband Internet access for $15-20 a month instead of $50.

In these incredibly tough economic times, how many of us have looked at our cable TV or broadband bills and asked ourselves if we can really afford such huge expenditures?

Yet, these services have become an integral part of our lives. How can you look your 6-year-old in the eye and tell them that their not going to be able to watch Nickelodeon anymore?

These big telecommunications giants don't give a rat's patootie about your financial circumstances. Struggling with your mortgage? Watching your 401k tank? Trying to keep food in the pantry? Gas in your car? Clothes on your kids' backs? It's not their problem. They are in fact counting on our quasi-addiction to their services to keep us plugged in and silent.

Naturally, these guys are screaming bloody murder about the FCC's recommendation. They claim that use of these frequencies will interfere with transmissions over nearby frequencies. But the FCC's tests were conducted over several years in some extremely challenging environments, so their complaints are really nothing more than gorilla dust.

We are rapidly reaching the point where many consumers could dump cable or fiber TV services and just watch their favorite programs streamed over the Internet. Online video providers such as Hulu and Joost are maturing rapidly. Almost all major prime-time programs are now watchable through services such as these.

In addition, appliances such as Apple TV, Netflix' Player, and the VUDU appliance, are making it easy to download and watch TV programs, as well as movies, over your broadband connection.

I've also advocated for so-called a la carte services for years, meaning being able to pick and choose the cable stations you actually pay for (did you know that ESPN alone accounts for $4 of your monthly cable bill?).

By taking advantage of programming available online, as well as video appliances such as those previously mentioned, it would be simple to watch all the programs and movies you want without paying for a bunch of hooey you never watch. Such an arrangement would thus be the equivalent of a la carte programming via cable.

The bottom line is that mass availability of wireless broadband Internet could eventually make cable TV irrelevant; even obsolete.

But most importantly, it could also provide broadband Internet access and a broader range of television, movie, and even educational programming to the huge swath of Americans who have fallen out of the middle class courtesy of corporate greed.

So, hats off to the FCC for their report, and here's hoping that this helps bring the U.S. in line with the rest of the civilized world in terms of broadband access, speed, and cost.


Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.


Copyright © 2008, Daily Press