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What Happens after Next February?

Doc Searls

Issue #173, September 2008

How Linux models a DIY path out of the coming DTV catastrophe.

Like many older geeks, I cut my technical teeth by hacking radio and television gear. I built my first AM receivers with crystals and wires wrapped around oatmeal boxes. In grade school, I built receivers and transmitters from kits by Lafayette and Heath. I became a ham radio operator at age 12, and I was obsessed with the innards of my Hammarlund HQ-129x receiver and my Johnson Viking I transmitter.

In high school, I put a home-brew radio station on the air, at 550kc (this was before we called cycles Hertz) on the AM dial. We had only dials then. I possessed defective math skills, but I was good with the concepts, especially as they applied in the terrestrial sphere. I understood the inverse square law and the geometries of wavelength applied to signals working in the real world.

In college, I followed a digressive path into the humanities, but maintained an obsession with RF transmission and propagation. In my twenties, I worked for a while in radio (where I got the Doc nickname), where among my duties was tweaking transmitters and climbing towers to change bulbs. Among my many minor distinctions was laying out the scenario by which many small-town FM stations in central North Carolina would grow to become 100,000-watt giants on towers up to 2,000-feet high, serving large portions of the state and beyond.

Today, on this page, I am committing a bold prophesy—one informed by more than 50 years of obsessing about RF propagation: television as we know it will end next February. It will end because nearly every station, by long-standing FCC orders, will vacate the familiar channel on which it has radiated for generations and go somewhere else on what used to be TV's “dial”. More important, you're not going to get a signal at all unless you're lucky enough to live within sight of the transmitting antenna.

Well, you might say, most of us don't get TV from antennas anymore. We get them from cable or satellite, which is true. And, most stations will continue to call themselves Channel 2 or Channel 13, even if their new digital signal is on Channel 50 or on Channel 18. But there will still be problems. UHF doesn't propagate as well as VHF. Digital signals don't degrade as gracefully. And, getting a converter box to turn digital signals into analog ones for your old television will be pointless if there's no signal there at all.

I won't even bother going into the other ways that DTV transmission will be a bust. The only thing that matters is that the conceptual basis of TV as we've known it since WWII—signals transmitted through the air, serving a physically limited region—will be nullified by reality. And, that reality will include far more than technical failings on the transmit side. The far bigger revolution will be on the production side. Because production won't be limited to entertainment giants pumping “programs” through a limited set of familiar “channels”. Instead, the power to produce will belong to everybody. The ends will have the means. Horses will leave TV barns by the millions.

Which brings me to Linux, free software and open source. We've been modeling the DIY production of goods in the wild for the better part of two decades (or longer if we date our start with the origins of the Free Software movement). We've also been building our own “solutions” since long before that term came into vogue as a synonym for “products”.

It's no coincidence that the transmitters on which billions watch YouTube are Linux servers. Or that Linux is in most of the world's set-top-boxes already. As we pointed out in an UpFront piece last month, it's even in the new Sony Bravia flat screens too.

But, those solutions are all locked up. We need the open ones now—ones that let people produce and distribute whatever they want, any way they want, without the need to live within the channel-bound framework of the old closed world of television's “content distribution”. We need Google, Amazon and other big “back-end” services to store our produced goods and distribute them agnostically—that is, without subordinating us to back-room dealings with Hollywood.

That's where the rub will come in. After TV as we know it fails in February, look for Hollywood to do new deals with the cable and phone carriers. The deal will be to create a two-tiered Internet—one in which the fast part will be a new TV transmission system to replace the old one. On the receiving end of Hollywood bucks will be AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Time-Warner and Verizon. The end result will be big downstream bandwidth for Big Content, and few if any upstream improvements for “consumers”.

We have to fight that. There will be much call for taking the fight to Congress, but the more important battle will be in our own brains, where we'll need to come up with inventions that mother necessity for a symmetrical, unbiased Internet that works as a pure utility for everybody. If we succeed, the Linux Way wins. If we fail, we'll get TV 2.0. Sadly, it will be built on Linux too.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and a fellow with both Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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