(Source: Fortune via Mark Fahey)
Switzerland Is Doing Away With Over-the-Air TV. Could the U.S. Do the Same?
Rabbit ears and other TV antennas could be useless in Switzerland before too long.
The Swiss government has given the country’s public broadcaster approval to turn off its digital terrestrial TV (known as over-the-air to most people) by the end of 2019. It will be the first nation in Europe to do so.
Most Swiss have high speed broadband internet connections and cable networks in their homes, so the move is unlikely to affect many citizens. Only 1.9% of the population, about 64,000 people, reportedly take advantage of the service that’s being discontinued.
Other European nations are expected to follow Switzerland’s lead in the next 10 to 15 years. And while many Americans believe the right to free, over-the-air broadcasts are protected, that’s not quite as cut and dry as it might seem.
Yes, the federal government licenses the airwaves to television stations (among other entities). […]But the government doesn’t license networks, only individual stations, as outlined by the FCC.
“We license only individual broadcast stations,”: the agency says in a 2008 report explaining its authority.
[…]Put another way: Networks are not required to broadcast their shows over the air.[…]
An interesting thing about Switzerland is they allow internet sites to stream any TV broadcasts that can be received unencrypted by other methods, like satellite. For a very small fee the Swiss can subscribe to a service like Zattoo and get HD stations from around Europe. In the US we have several internet TV providers but they charge a lot more and many local network affiliates aren’t included because of rights issues and stalled negotiations.
Regardless of modulation, it is worth noting the experience of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. The local MW broadcast station was one of the few ways that people could get word of what was going on.
So for emergencies, MW broadcasts are one of the key ways to get emergency messages out.
We all have this belief that our cell phone will continue to work, but they’re not really that resilient, nor are they designed for the volume of traffic that public officials expect them to have in a disaster.
I don’t see television being a major component of this effort one way or another. That spectrum a television station could easily handle more cell phone spectrum, or it could handle spectrum for first responders. So I don’t really see a problem with what the Swiss are trying to do.
HB9 is a small, rich country with many mountains. Remember the famous winter ressorts like Davos. Here it makes technical sense to concentrate on only a few communications networks with total coverage.
This development reduces possibilities for desaster communication. Switzerland is also one of the European countries with the most DAB+ listeners. DAB+ single-channel systems rely on exact synchronization of all transmitters. This is mostly done through GPS. The US war secretary can therefore switch off most European DAB+ networks. And if they decide to jam the Galileo system, this European systems does not help either.
I would contest your second point. In terms of disaster communication, I’d argue that TV is nearly useless. My other comments here explain why in more detail, but briefly, a disaster situation would most likely kill the power, which would put most if not all televisions out of service. Portable televisions do exist, but are not popular. Running a television transmitter would already take a large amount of emergency power, and few people could receive the signal.
As for DAB+, the only systems requiring precision timing are those using SFN, where all transmitters use the same frequency. All other broadcasters would not be impeded by a GPS takedown. Also, GPS cannot be taken down for one person–the choices are that nobody can use it, only the U.S. military can use it, or everyone can use it. Therefore, I’d put the likelihood of such a takedown rather low and, as you’ve said, there are alternatives from Europe, Russia, and China that can be used as well. Jamming these, while technically possible, is very difficult. Even if it happens, the broadcasters can maintain a useful signal by closing some transmitters to avoid clashing. This could be fixed in the longterm with other time systems, such as those set via time broadcasts (the big one in Germany could be of use here). In the meantime, most DAB+, all FM, MW, and LW radio sources would continue functioning perfectly. This would provide information in a useful way for those dealing with an extreme emergency situation. If the situation was not so problematic, internet, cable, and satellite networks could all continue to deliver video content.
What will Switzerland do with the vacated spectrum?
I’d suggest the government vacate and largely deregulate the spectrum. Allow innovators to experiment on the band without any licensing and one restriction; don’t interfere with one another.
Additionally, are commercial broadcasters in Switzerland on board with this prospect as well? I assume so, but the article only references the state broadcaster…
Makes sense in a small country with complete broadband penetration with no data caps. Relative to broadcast radio, TV monopolizes a huge swath of very useful spectrum, relative to it’s utility. If one of the new digital broadcast radio technologies included the capacity for still images (like a radar image during a major storm), than it could fill remaining niche of broadcast TV.
Some of the over the air channels can be useful,esp. the subchannels.
Two local stations b/c radar on their subs while most cable outfits don’t
Right now in Panama City FL those who have power doubtless may not
have cable but over the air stations might be there.
The impending change to version 3 of over the air digital will mean either
buying a new tv or converter;some stations may ponder just pulling the
plug as a result.
Many people consider internet streaming of locals and are totally
unaware of over the air tv…one local station pushes their app and
never mentions over the air.
I don’t have a problem with a decision to keep the system running, but I also don’t care much about the alternative. Broadcast TV doesn’t have a ton of advantages over internet/cable/satellite TV. The modern digital standards, while they improve the quality of the signal, have meant that very few ways exist to receive the signal portably. If you’re tied to a mains power situation in almost all situations where the signal can be usefully received, you’re also tied to a place where mains network connection is available too. Meanwhile, audio-only radio can reach a longer range and can be available in an emergency situation much more usefully than can television. It can be received on a battery-powered device that is very portable. For example, a person can monitor emergency conditions as broadcast over a radio while they evacuate, rather than before they evacuate. Yes, you could technically use an SDR and a laptop to receive wireless TV without something else, but it would kill a battery rather fast and would still not be very portable, with the various components of such a system and the requirement to keep them all running.
Meanwhile, other methods of providing TV give more choice of what content to view, higher quality of signal, and give less power (although not much less) to networks that could blanket an area in their own signals. True, they’re almost all run by evil companies that like to charge you unrealistic bills that change each month, but so do the mobile companies and we still pay them.
There’s nothing stopping the reception of TV on the go in the digital domain. It seems to work just fine with the European DVB-T standard, and some luxury cars have TV tuners built in. ATSC is not meant for reception in a moving vehicle, though, so it doesn’t work well in that case. The TV stations banded together and created a special low bitrate mobile DTV (mDTV) feature years ago and rolled it out, but it was DOA because virtually no one needs it. I don’t think it’s in use anymore.
There is at least one big advantage to watching OTA versus online or cable/satellite: you’re getting the best picture possible from the broadcaster in most cases, whereas cable and online are compressed and look worse. At least to me. And in the US, internet access is far from universal so many of us (myself included) struggle to keep live TV from buffering, cutting out or just completely failing. During storms, satellite dishes experience rain fade and cable systems can get knocked out. OTA keeps on going until something happens at the TX site.
I’m not what Switzerland hopes to gain by switching off OTA TV there. It may save some money, but it won’t free up much spectrum. It’s a small country and they still have to guard the TV bands to protect stations in adjacent countries.
There is no specific reason that TV can’t work on the go. There do exist some portable receivers. However, they are not very useful in an emergency, the point I was responding to, because they’re going to eat through their batteries quickly with the complexity of the signal and the power requirements of a screen. Also, I don’t know how many people even have one of those; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one. I can also not see TV as more useful than audio-only radio in an emergency situation, as the audio signal lets you hear the information while escaping, while even a portable TV will distract from such a thing because you’d have to look at whatever they’re putting on screen.
I did not think much about the lack of internet access in the U.S. This would make using online TV more problematic. However, I was under the impression that cable connections were usually available where other mains data connections are. Given that cable connections can carry signals in a lossless format suitable for display on 4K televisions, I somehow doubt that a wireless signal is really superior (or at all), though I have not used either method for watching video in quite some time (when I did, the quality of a wireless signal was fine, but nothing impressive). If it is not the case that cable is generally available there, then wireless television seems like it should still be needed in America. However, in Europe this is less a consideration.
You answered your own question, it saves money. Why do they have to do anything with the released spectrum. They could auction the spectrum and raise money. The licenses would protect against interference and