Time for digital turnoff

Jeff Jarvis has a great post over at Buzzmachine in which he argues that its time to ‘tear down the broadcast towers’:

My most striking realization since getting my iPhone (love it, thanks for asking) is that radio is doomed. Pandora is a wonder, creating my own radio station, live and on the fly without need for a broadcast tower.

I agree.  Here’s something I wrote over two years ago about television…

Rethinking Digital Television

Spending £700 million on digital switchover is perhaps the most foolish waste of public money since the Maginot Line, and will be as effective in stopping the tide of Internet-based programming that is about to sweep over Europe and the rest of the networked world.

Building a dedicated transmission network designed solely to distribute digitally-encoded television over a fixed set of frequencies, so that audio and video can be received by specialised aerials, decoded on single-purpose computers and displayed on screens is an absurd idea when cable companies are already making the switch to IPTV and a general-purpose data network – the Internet – can provide a suitable infrastructure for programme distribution.

As those telephone companies that rely on voice calls for revenue are discovering with voice over Internet (VOIP), once a technology matures to the point where is can get beyond the early adopters its impact can be rapid and brutal. VOIP has turned  most revenue projections and business plans for telcos into scrap paper for the kids to draw on at school, and its impact is only just being felt.  Packet-based distribution of video content will do the same for television.

Yet BBC policy seems to be based on the assumption that television broadcasting in something like a recognisable form will continue for at least the next decade if not until the mid-century.

The central insight of our digital age is that since ‘data is data’ networks should simply move bits around and not worry about what they are supposed to ‘mean’, yet the government and the BBC propose to build a new transmission system which ignores this reality and adheres to the old model of ‘broadcast television’, even if it does come with a dusting of interactivity and a pause button.

This is a wholly inadequate response to the challenge which digital poses to the television and radio industries, one which positions the BBC firmly in the twentieth century and can only hasten its demise as a national provider of programmes, especially when its key commercial competitors, Sky and the cable companies, embrace the data-based approach.

Dealing with Digital

Digital television, whether terrestrial, satellite or cable, relies on modulating a carrier frequency with a signal which represents binary numbers rather than a continuously varying analogue value.  It is digital in the sense that discrete values, sampled many thousands of times a second, are used to tell the decode which colour pixels to display and what level of sound to output.

While multiple signals can be sent over the same carrier, or multiplex, the transmission model is still circuit-based, unlike the packet-based model that underpins the Internet and other computer networks.
When data is sent over the Internet it is broken into small chunks, called packets. Each packet is sent out separately over the network, to be assembled at the destination. It is a totally different model from the circuit-based broadcast service currently in use.

Until relatively recently the Internet was not suitable for doing television, since data could not be streamed reliably or fast enough from server computers and the total network capacity was not able to support the millions of simultaneous viewers that broadcast services can attract.

This is no longer the case. As audiences fragment the number of shows watched simultaneously by millions drops, but more importantly the network itself is now far faster and more able to deliver video on demand.  Microsoft’s IPTV, delivering television services over cable networks, shows what will be possible over the public Internet in the very near future.

This has significant implications for the way television works. With fast networks for moving bits around, powerful computers for storing, manipulating and displaying the data those bits encode, and an appropriate set of standards for handling the different data types and identifying them at the receiving end you don’t need dedicated hardware or a specialised transmission network to do television – you just need to tap into the data stream and pull out the programmes you want to watch.

While this clearly has serious implications for the manufacturers of TV sets, and should seriously worry  the providers of terrestrial, cable and satellite transmission services, its real impact will be felt by those who commission and create television programmes and those who have until now used those programmes as a way to deliver audiences to advertisers.

Yet the BBC’s forward thinking does not seem to acknowledge the forthcoming discontinuity.  Current plans call for analogue television broadcasts to cease in 2012, but it would be sensible for the BBC to argue for digital terrestrial and all radio, both analogue and DAB, to be switched off at the same time.   It would seem very likely that Sky and other satellite providers will make a move to data-based services within that time frame too. If Sky’s satellites became data servers rather than just radio relays then all existing services could be provided, but there would be scope to link the satellite feed closely to other data services provided over broadband.  Since they are rumoured to be in the market for a broadband provider this possibility cannot be discounted.

The End of the Channel

Once television is just another sort of data transmitted over the Internet little of the existing industry will survive unchanged. The idea of the ‘channel’ stops have any real significance, although some people may choose to have a sequence of programmes delivered at specific times, and live events will still be a draw.   In fact, the very idea of television as anything other than a screen mode, a decision to watch a video stream full-screen,

Making It Happen

There is plenty of time to plan and execute a switchover to  packet-based audio and video services which will replace and improve on current radio and television broadcasts.  After all, for £700 million you could provide 100 mbps wireless net access and an access point to every building in the country.

We stand on the point of a complete reinvention of television as it moves from being a channel-based broadcast medium to be one of many content forms delivered over the Internet to our homes (and mobile devices). Sticking with the old model and the old transmission mechanisms will leave the BBC as the proud owner of a broadcast infrastructure that serves no useful purpose, a telegraph company with skilled Morse operators watching with envy as telephones are installed around the world.

Tomorrow’s BBC: the British Bitserving Corporation?

In the packet-switched world the BBC continues to make, commission and buy programmes, just as now. It schedules and runs channels for radio and tv,  just as now, and runs interactive television, a website, CEEFAX and other services.  And it has a large and committed audience for live events or programmes which work better when experienced as they happen.

What changes is that these are all constructed from a single, coherent collection of material which can be selected and delivered in a variety of ways. A single programme might be broadcast at a set time on BBC1 over the remaining cable or satellite networks while at the same time being delivered to mobile phones over GSM/GPRS or UMTS, streamed over IPTV or simply seeded on BitTorrent.  The website is there, and it provides an avenue through which many people find BBC content, branded as BBC1 or Radio3, but it is complemented by RSS feeds, mobile programme guides  and a range of other services which allow the audience to find, tag and receive BBC content.

And in that world the BBC can be one of the most important players – but only if it abandons its adherence to digital television and embraces true digital content.

One Reply to “Time for digital turnoff”

  1. As you have written (I’ll paraphrase), traditional broadcasting is redundant in the packet-based world, but I don’t think that removes the need to have pre-programmed channels. Pre-programming serves the purpose of connecting us with others that cannot be replaced by just programming our channels ourselves.

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