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February 06, 2011

The Super Bowl and the Future of Wireless

I'm sulking about the Jet's defeat and not watching the Super Bowl, but almost everybody else in the country is. Of course people are watching on bigger and bigger screens; but they also want to watch on the small mobile screens of tablets and smart phones. Turns out to be one of the few times when old technologies are better than new ones. And gives us a clue towards how radio spectrum will be used in the future.

Radio spectrum which used to be reserved for broadcast TV is being reassigned for use as two-way wireless spectrum. Some of the spectrum is being auctioned off; some is being made available for unlicensed use (white space), which is really exciting. It's not really that anything has been taken away from broadcast; it's just that digital signal allows broadcasters to squeeze much more content into a smaller space in the broadcast spectrum.

In the future the demand for general purpose spectrum will keep growing – think again of all those smart phones and tablets – and the need for broadcast will continue to shrink as more and more people use the Internet to access their entertainment even on the big screen in the family room. Ever since the invention of the VCR and then DVR, we no longer all watch the same thing at the same time – except for events like the Super Bowl or the freedom virus spreading to the streets of Cairo.

Since there are relatively few events we want to watch in real time, it's tempting to say (and I have been saying it) that broadcast will just give up all spectrum and all content will be delivered over the fixed or mobile Internet. The fixed Internet can probably handle that as fiber moves further and further out into the hinterland; traditional cable delivers over 200 channels at the same time to our houses already. But, even with the exciting applications that will develop in white spaces and further advances in squeezing more signal into less and less bandwidth, there will be too many of us trying to watch real time events in high definition or even 3-D on mobile devices for the available mobile bandwidth. Carriers will limit us either with high pricing or bandwidth throttles. and they'll have good reason for doing that throttling.

Which is where we get back to broadcast. When one-way broadcast technologies are used, it doesn't matter how many people are watching a single event; it only has to be broadcast from enough repeaters to cover the geography of watchers. The transmitters can use high power and be located far away from the low-powered receivers because the receivers, unlike cell phones, don't have to be able to transmit back.

So here's what I think'll happen. Terrestrial TV broadcasters will be incented to give up all of the spectrum they occupy today. Those frequencies are too good in terms of range and penetration to be used for the relatively small number of people who'll be watching over-the-air TV at any one time. Satellite technology will change so that small non-directional antennas (like those in tablets and smart phones) can pick up the signal which today requires a directional dish. This may mean using more of the available spectrum for each "channel", but there won't be as many channels as today because most content doesn't need to be real time. Our small devices will have not only WiFi, maybe LTE, Bluetooth, and whatever protocols are developed for white spaces – they'll also be able to receive the satellite channels in a broadcast protocol. Big TV screens will receive the same signals (note we don't need cable then, either). We may pay for the Super Bowl by subscription or per show or it may be ad supported; but there won't be an airtime charge because there is no incremental bandwidth burden imposed by each watcher.

Hope your team wins this year. Next year it's the Jets.

Related posts:

Go White Space, Young Person, Go White Space

Daddy, What's a Channel?



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