The digital ideologues in Government, industry and the media have got us all convinced that the switch to digital is inevitable and that ITV Digital?s failure is a potential disaster for Britain. The fact is that a policy of total switch-off makes less sense now, technologically or socially, than it ever did.
In the analogue realm, when you need to send information through the air, you pick a thin slice of radio spectrum and squirt your signal down it with as much power as your equipment (and the law) allow. This is how radio stations and analogue TV transmissions work. Each station is granted its own slice of spectrum and each transmits with all of its allowed power. The power gives you reach (40 or 50 miles for a strong FM transmission) and the strict separation of signals (with a large empty region around each to protect it from the analogue curse: interference) gives you a clear signal. Meanwhile, at the receiving end, cheap, passive receivers (your trannie or analogue TV) don’t have to work hard – you twiddle the tuning knob to exclude adjacent signals and Bob’s your uncle. This may be the old way of doing things but it looks like its simplicity and robustness may buy it decades more life. In fact, as the digital bodycount mounts and the inevitability of the analogue switch-off fades, we shouldn’t rule out a revival for this quaint, 19th Century technology.
Analogue is elegant, accessible and cheap. More specifically, it’s cheap where it needs to be – in your house and the millions of other end points in the broadcast universe. Listeners and viewers buy their own kit (no suicidal subsidies). It’s cheap because development costs are well and truly sunk and because you don’t have to custom-create content for niches and individuals. It’s easy to ‘tune’ analogue transmission for distance (and for licensing regimes): place your transmission mast at the geographic centre of your licensing region and turn the power knob until everyone can hear or get a picture. Bingo. No need to scatter base stations like confetti – spending as much on rights-of-way and health and safety studies as on transmission kit, no need to dig up every road in Britain and no Kafkaesque programme of adjustment for every aerial in the land. Incidentally, practically every house in Britain is equipped to receive analogue signals and, in the absence of a proper aerial, a bent coat hanger will probably do.
The promise of digital is great and it’s inevitable that analogue will finally be replaced but enthusiasm for all things digital has, until now, been driven by market sentiment and when sentiment goes against you, it’s always worth re-examining your initial assumptions.
All the assumptions driving analogue TV switch-off, for instance, are flawed:
Assumption 1. spectrum is valuable. Not true. With demand uncertain and the capital markets still on strike, there’s no evidence that anyone will pay for this real estate at all. Spectrum has no objective value – it’s worth exactly what you can get for it. Meanwhile, other big owners of spectrum, like stock market new-boy MMO2, have seen their assets marked down to zero or not much.
Assumption 2. the spectrum is needed. By whom? When the frequencies were being divvied up this may have been true but innovation makes them less important. The phone companies who’ve been waiting for television’s swathe of UHF spectrum could relocate elsewhere. Clever spectrum-sharing technologies, already standard in data networking, will allow them to exploit even frequencies currently occupied by other digital players.
Assumption 3. It’s socially important that we bring everyone onto digital. Who says? Half the population has not switched yet. A third probably never will. What do we gain, as a society, by chivvying this group, many of whom can’t afford the new kit and don’t see value in the new content, onto digital. Answer: nothing.
Assumption 4. The ITV companies will go bust if they’re not guaranteed large enough audiences for their digital programmes. There are over 200 TV channels available to British homes now. ITV’s inevitable fate is to shrink as a proportion of total viewing and of advertising expenditure (along with all the other terrestrial incumbents). It’s inconceivable that a slice of protected digital spectrum will do more than apply a sticking plaster.
Market turmoil has thrown all the pieces of the media puzzle in the air – all bets are off. We can make some guesses at the puzzle’s final shape: the next decade will see no final victory for digital. Much of the unreasoning digital ideology has been shaken out of the industry. Those predicting apocalyptic switches, migrations and upheavals are tempering their language to match the situation on the ground. Messy human context has once again reasserted itself. The hyper-rational logic of the digital evangelists – driven, as usual, solely by the theoretical benefits of the new technology – will arrive at a pragmatic accommodation with analogue. Sloppy, inefficient analogue and clever, parsimonious digital will co-exist, each doing what it’s good at. Interesting new hybrids will flourish. If the ideologues can contain their obsession with efficiency for a little while, the resulting broadcast ecology might be a very interesting place to do business.
(Read Professor Martin Cave’s fascinating Review of Radio Spectrum Management, a report prepared earlier this year for the DTI and the Chancellor of the Exchequor, for a glimpse of the future of the historically sleepy realm of radio spectrum).