By Philip Baczewski, senior director, University IT
April 17, 2017 – My thoughts have turned to rabbit ears just in time for the Easter holiday. However, the rabbit ears I'm thinking of are not the fuzzy kind, but the ones that used to sit on top of every "TV set" (that's what we called it) when I was a kid. What prompted this association was reading about the recent auction of some of the old TV broadcast spectrum for use by a new set of communication companies, all providing a digital, rather than analog, communication stream.
It may be time for a bit of nostalgia for some of us and a history lesson for those born after about 1985. In a time long ago and even before Facebook, television (TV) was an exclusively over-the-air broadcast medium. If you lived far from a broadcast tower, you might require a complex roof-top antenna to receive television broadcasts. But many who lived near enough to urban areas could get by with just the rabbit ears. In later years, the rabbit ears would even be built into some TVs.
TV was broadcast in two sets of radio frequency spectra, VHF and UHF. VHF were the stations with stronger signals given channel numbers 2 through 13. UHF channels were numbers 14 to 83 and were generally weaker in broadcast range and required a supplemental loop-shaped antenna to be received. Analog televisions had two dials, one to tune VHF and one to tune UHF signals. It should be noted that in these ancient times, one was required to stand up, move to the television, and physically turn a dial in order to change what was being viewed. We had yet to experience the life changing technology of the TV remote control which, like fire and the wheel, has forever altered the human experience.
Back to the future
Fast forward to 2009 whizzing past cable TV, VCRs, DVRs, and home satellite receivers, and the United States switches from analog TV broadcasts to exclusively digital TV broadcasts. After June 12, 2009, your old TV dials and rabbit ears were useless because over-the-air TV broadcasts were now in high definition and used an entirely different range of radio signals to carry the transmission. One result from this change was that the radio broadcast ranges that carried the old analog channels could be reused for other types of communication technologies.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held its first auction for these old TV station spectra in 2008. The 700 MHz band (UHF channels 52-69) was put up for sale resulting in major acquisitions by Verizon and AT&T. Both carriers developed their 4th generation LTE cellular networks to be carried on these frequencies. A more recent auction of the 600 MHz spectrum (channels 36-51) saw major acquisitions by T-Mobile, Dish Network, and Comcast. It seems likely that T-Mobile will follow the lead of AT&T and Verizon to expand and/or improve the coverage of their 4G network.
What's old is new again
Technological progress marches on and we may not even notice these shifts in broadcast usage. We see it as an increase in the availability or quality of digital information services, much of which is delivered through our hand-held mobile devices. Looking back, it seems like the switch to digital broadcast was a non event, with many people receiving their video media exclusively via cable or satellite TV services. But the radio spectrum has its usable limits, so something old has to give way to anything new.
Now even more content is being streamed from the internet and much of the time being received on mobile devices via cellular connections. The technology pendulum for video media has swung from broadcast in the radio spectrum, to a dominance of cable-based delivery, and now back into the same broadcast spectrum. I guess the old rabbit ears are as iconic to over-the-air TV as cats are to the current internet. Of course, rabbit ears could be really exasperating but at least they were never grumpy.