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The digital frontier

LIKE NETWORK EXECUTIVES canceling a sitcom, federal lawmakers have set a date for the last broadcast of conventional television: Feb. 17, 2009.

That’s when analog TV signals will be turned off in favor of digital broadcasts, which offer improved pictures and more programming choices. The bad news is that tuning in the new signals requires either a digital TV, which the vast majority of homes don’t have, or a converter box (possibly from a cable or satellite TV service) to translate the digital broadcasts into analog pictures.

Nevertheless, the House and Senate gave preliminary approval this week to a budget bill that pulls the plug on analog TV in a little over three years. The bill would provide two $40 coupons per household for converter boxes, up to a total of $1.5 billion. But with an estimated 73 million TVs in more than 30 million homes tuning in analog signals through antennas today, a lot of viewers are likely to be caught unprepared when those signals vanish.

Lawmakers were willing to risk a couch-potato revolt not because they were smitten with digital TV, but because they wanted to reclaim the frequencies that local stations have been using for their analog channels. Those frequencies are a pot of gold that ultimately could be the richest dividend of the switch to digital broadcasting -- if Congress and the Federal Communications Commission don’t discard long-term gains for the sake of short-term revenue.

The airwaves used by TV broadcasters are coveted by companies eager to offer an array of wireless services, such as beaming video to portable devices or Web pages to pocket-sized computers. The signals can travel much farther than the ones used by digital cellphones, making it possible to build less expensive networks and charge lower prices. In short, it’s a fertile field for new competitors.

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Some of those airwaves have already been dedicated to emergency services, which will make a long-overdue improvement in the way public safety agencies communicate with one another. Others are slated to be auctioned to the highest bidder, raising an estimated $10 billion to $30 billion for the U.S. Treasury. In addition to raising a tidy sum, auctions would let market forces, rather than the government, decide how best to use those airwaves.

Still, Washington should not let the quest for revenue override a more fundamental goal: making affordable high-speed Internet service available to all Americans. If the high bidders in the auctions are affiliated with the local telephone and cable companies that already offer high-speed Internet service, they’re not likely to use the airwaves for a cheaper version of broadband. Similarly, the high bidders might be more interested in offering movies to cellphones than a fat pipe to the Web. That’s why Washington should leave some of the reclaimed frequencies open to the public without need for lease or license. With the right technologies and rules to guard against interference, these airwaves could not only enable community-based high-speed Internet services, but provide a laboratory for wireless innovation.

By opening a few slivers of the spectrum to unlicensed wireless data services in 1986, the FCC made possible an explosion in Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, communication gear and services that continues to this day. The reclaimed analog TV frequencies hold even more promise. Rather than mining every bit for auction revenue, lawmakers should reserve some of the airwaves for whatever services and applications that innovative technologists and community groups can squeeze into them.


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