Over at CaptainsQuartersBlog, the indefatigable Ed Morrissey posts a colloquy from the Senate debate over the congressional Democrats’ legally-doomed attempt to kill the First Amendment by taking over the broadcast radio industry. The discussion, and indeed, Sen. Coleman’s impassioned speech, discuss the internet and alternative media.
What I didn’t see, though, and is almost never mentioned, is the original rationale for the prior regulatory regimes of the broadcast industry. When the FCC regulated TV and radio under the original “fairness doctrine”, the justification was the limited bandwidth of the RF spectrum- you had, for AM radio, a range between 560 kilocycles and 1,710 kilocycles that could be sliced into piece only so thin before the signals were interfering with one another. If you allowed stations to broadcast from bands that were too close together, you couldn’t hear either one- in the Captain’s own market, there are AM stations at 1500, 1530, and 1570; using an old dial (variable capacitor) tuner, it was almost impossible to zero in on one. This meant that over the total AM range, you couldn’t squeeze in much more than about 20 stations within one 75 , mile radius of the transmitter tower- and even then weather conditions and nightfall would further cause overlaps. For TV, you had channels 2 throught 13, later expanded by the UHF band, with radio, the FM band added more stations. But today, if you are in a big city and want to play your IPod through the car radio, it is difficult find a free frequency.
Thus, the FCC could with a straight face assert that the limited bandwidth required that licenses granted to broadcasters carried an added responsibility to devote a certain portion of broadcast time to public service, and to represent all points of view. The public could challenge the license renewals if the station was perceived as not meeting that standard. And, as many have said, the issue was not that people couldn’t meet the standard, it was that it was far easier to avoid the headaches and simply not air anything that was controversial. Hence, we got a steady diet of public service announcements disapproving of drugs, smoking, pollution, and all that.
That rationale is not only weak, the reason that the courts began to slice away at it, and Reagan eventually issued the order recognizing reality, it is now technologically irrelevant, because bandwidth is unlimited already by means of alternative media, and will soon be completely unlimited. That is because of the conversion from analog to digital.
Few people are aware that all of the cable channels, even the analog channels, are provided in a range of roughly two channels of standard broadcast television through sophisiticated frequency management methods. That alone substantially increased the number of offerings available. Analog satellite, those big ugly six or eight foot dishes that swung through the sky from horizon to horizon, showed the way- you could, with proper expensive and complicated equipment, squeeze a lot of stations into more limited space by having more than twenty TV stations on one satellite. With a lot of satellites up there, now we could access even more signals.
But, now when you take digital data streams, the examples being XM and Sirius radio, and Dish and DirecTV (DirecTV founded by Cap’n Ed’s former employer in California) you only need one main satellite and one backup to broadcast hundreds and thousands of signals through each “pipe”. This works the same way as your cell phone (wireless) or the Internet (hard line or wireless) does- the TV or radio signal is digitized, the signals are compressed, and multiple signals are stacked onto one carrier wave, then decoded by the receiver. You can do that now if you have a good Internet broadband connection- but soon all of the broadcast TV signals will convert to digital, and you will be able to receive thousands of high definition digital channels packed into the space that formerly could only accommodate old TV Channel 4.
Where TV goes, radio will follow- at some point, standard AM or FM radio will conver to digital signals, and you will get hundreds of stations all non-interfering, between AM 700 and AM 900, freeing up the rest of the bands for things like universal Internet wireless and the like. Any fiction like the FCC’s former rationale for regulating the airwaves for “fairness” is revealed as the lie it is.
And Sen Durbin knows it. He’s just trying to throw some speed bumps in front of Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Miller, and their colleagues who keep bringing up impertinent things like facts, history, what they said last year, etc.