Only 8% of US Households Watch Over-The-Air Broadcast TV.

It’s official.  Only 8% of US households watch TV by tuning into free over-the-air broadcasts.   The vast majority of American homes get their TV signal via cable, satellite or telco fibre.  Gary Shapiro, the President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, says “It’s time we accept this shift away from over-the-air TV as an irrevocable fact of the TV market. The numbers tell the story.”

Why do we still give away vast chunks of spectrum to broadcast networks?

Spectrum real estate is the most valuable and scarcest real estate in the world.  The spectrum belongs to the American people.   Congress grants it to broadcasters totally free of charge in exchange for providing the public the benefit of free television programming and information services.   The broadcasters long ago abandoned their obligation to educate and inform the citizenry, opting instead to titillate, amuse, provoke or pander to the public instead.   And now 92% of us are not even watching anymore.

Face it:  the huge chunks of spectrum given away to broadcasting companies are utterly wasted.

So why give it away for free?

If the broadcasters paid for the spectrum, they’d have every incentive to innovate and make better use of it.   Mobile phone companies spend billions to acquire chunks of spectrum in competitive auctions: they innovate like mad to optimize their return on investment.   During the past decade we’ve seen ceaseless innovation in advanced mobile services, including high speed data, wireless video streaming, video telephony, push-to-talk, mobile instant messaging and more.

But there has been no innovation in broadcasting apart from the shift to digital.   Same product, delivered the same inefficient way.    In fact, high definition video occupies much more spectrum than conventional broadcasting ever did.
The fact that there has been zero innovation in broadcasting in more than a decade is evidence that the old model of giving real estate away for free no longer works.

I say, let’s move the broadcast networks off the air.  Turn NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC into basic cable channels.   And let’s use the spectrum in a more intelligent way.

There are lots of ways that the spectrum could be used more efficiently.  For starters, how about a national high speed wireless data network?   There’s no real competition in fixed broadband services:  fewer than 15% of US households have a real choice in broadband provider.   It’s unlikely that telcos are going to rewire every neighborhood for fibreoptic cable to the home.   But a wireless broadband network could be set up relatively quickly and at significantly lower capital investment.  It would bring much-needed competition to the US broadband market, which might spur investment in upgrading the landlines.

Currently the US is not even among the top 12 nations for residential broadband service coverage or speed.   This is not just an embarrassment:  it’s a strategic disadvantage.   Other nations, ranging from Japan and Korea with blazing fast speeds to several European nations, perceive high-speed residential internet as a major national telecommunications priority for obvious reasons:  high speed internet access is likely to redefine so many aspects of society, from education to commerce to marketing to telecommunications.   Countries with a vision for the future know how significant the two-way network will be, and they are making the investment today so that they are well positioned for a faster future.

Oh, and by the way, network television could be streamed over the wireless broadband network, too,.  As part of the deal to return the underutilized spectrum, broadcasters could be guaranteed universal distribution.    So the broadcasters wouldn’t be required to give up anything when they vacate the spectrum.