As cellphones gobble bandwidth, TV stations change frequencies

—Mark Wagner (User:CarnildoCC BY 2.5

Can you see me now? The Federal Communications Commission is telling TV viewers who still use an antenna that they’ll have to take a few minutes to perform a settings update, otherwise they could be met with a blank screen when they flip to their favorite channel.

ALBANY COUNTY — If you’re in one of the millions of American households that uses an antenna to get its local television programming, the Federal Communications Commission wants you to know that, to keep watching, you’ll have to take five minutes to update your television’s settings. 

Between 2010 and 2017, the amount of mobile data used by Americans increased 40-fold

And now, with the rollout of fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks, with speed to rival that of in-home fixed-wired cable services, some in the industry  estimate that mobile-data usage will quadruple or even quintuple again in just the next four to five years.

This looming “spectrum crunch,” according to the Federal Communications Commission, is taxing a “finite national resource that makes all forms of wireless communication possible.” 

As such, in 2009, Congress mandated that the FCC come up with a plan to expand the nation’s broadband infrastructure. Chief among the commission’s recommendations was to try to make available portions of the country’s existing spectrum, its “finite national resource,” for the next technological revolution. 

And one way that spectrum has been made available is through the FCC’s Broadcast Incentive Auction, a first-of-its kind plan designed to “repurpose” spectrum, the television airwaves, by “repacking” the participating channels into similar frequency bands by paying them to go off the air or enter into a channel-sharing arrangements, and “reallocating,” or auctioning off, that freed-up bandwidth to the wireless industry. 

The auction raised $19.8 billion from the wireless broadband industry, $10 billion of which went to the broadcast television stations and $7.3 billion went toward reducing the federal deficit. 

About half of the full-power broadcast television stations across the country will be changing the frequencies at which they broadcast, Jean Kiddoo, chairwoman of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force, told The Enterprise. Seven local stations will be affected, according to the FCC

This means that the 14 percent of television households considered to be “broadcast only” or “over-the-air” viewers — those households that don’t have either cable or satellite but rather use an antenna to get their television programming — will have to “rescan” their televisions in order to pick up the new frequencies at which their favorite channels are now broadcast. 

Channel numbers won’t change, Kiddoo said, but the television needs to be “retrained” to find the channel in a different place. Televisions are not sent from the factory pre-programmed with local channels, Kiddoo said, so, when those viewers set up their antennaed television for the first time, it has to be scanned so that it “reaches out and looks for what is available locally,” and then programs itself to find those channels in the airwaves. 

The FCC is asking viewers to re-perform that scan in order to find the repacked stations at their new location.  

So, Kiddoo said, what the viewer needs to do is take five minutes and:

— Press “set-up” or “menu” on the TV remote control or converter box;

— Select “channels,” “antenna,” or other similar terminology;

— Click “scan,” “auto-tune,” “channel search,” “auto-program,” or other similar terminology; and 

— The TV will find the channel on its new frequency.

What happens if viewers don’t rescan? 

Kiddoo said that, if a viewer flips to a channel that has changed frequencies (locally, the ABC and PBS affiliates are changing frequencies in the next couple of weeks, she said), they will likely see either a blue screen or “snow.”

“It’s important for viewers to know, basically, a good rule of thumb is: If a channel that they are used to seeing on their antennas goes missing, the first thing they should do is rescan, just to see if that clears it up,” Kiddoo said. 

Viewers who may need more help, Kiddoo said, can visit or call 1-888-225-5322. 

How to do more with less 

Technology is constantly improving, Kiddoo said; that, in turn, has allowed the broadcast airwaves to be used effectively and efficiently, which has led to more and more television being sent out over the same amount of spectrum. 

“A good example of using technology to make the airwaves more efficient was about 10 years ago,” Kiddoo said, when the switch was made from analog to digital broadcast television.

The electromagnetic spectrum is made up of all types of radiation, waves of energy that travel and spread through the air at different rates, or frequencies: radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays, and gamma rays. And, in the electromagnetic spectrum, there are two important types of transmissions: analog and digital. 

An analog transmission sends out information — sound, video, or data — in a continuous wave; its frequency, or the rate at which it travels, and strength can change over a period of time.

In a digital transmission, the information is converted into a series of ones and zeros, reformatted, and sent as electrical pulses, which increases the accuracy of the signal while also increasing its capacity. 

For over-the-air television, Kiddoo said, the switch from analog to digital broadcast meant that a channel was now able to multicast multiple streams of programming over the same amount of airwaves. 

Before the switch, it took about six megahertz to broadcast an analog television channel; after the switch, as many as four or five channels could be broadcast over the same amount of spectrum.

For example, she said, before, the local PBS affiliate could be found on, say, Channel 17. After the switch to a digital over-the-air broadcast, the local PBS affiliate could be found on Channel 17.1; while on Channel 17.2, was UKTV; Channel 17.3 was PBS Kids; and, on Channel 17.4, was a simulcast of the national PBS broadcast. 

By making the switch from analog to digital, television broadcasters freed up a lot of choice spectrum for wireless companies to gobble up. Commonly referred to as “beachfront property,” the low-frequency wavelengths of the 700 MHz spectrum are unique in their ability to penetrate buildings and other obstructions. The low-frequency wavelengths are also able to travel longer distances than current cellular technology, which means fewer towers, which could lead to lower construction and maintenance costs — padding the carrier’s bottom line. 

In 2008, the FCC put up for auction the spectrum licenses of television operators who had made the switch to digital broadcasting. Wireless companies spent $19 billion to acquire those licenses, which subsequently became the backbone on which the current 4G-wireless network was built.

By 2015, $45 billion worth of mid-band spectrum — generally considered not as valuable as the low-band spectrum that is found in the airwaves of broadcast television — was auctioned off by the FCC. The staggering sum paid for a widely-acknowledged, poorer-quality wireless spectrum, experts said, illustrated the explosive growth and popularity of both smartphones and wireless broadband. Although higher-frequency, mid-band airwaves are less desired for mobile phones, they can carry a lot of data across the spectrum, which is becoming more important for wireless networks as they upgrade to 5G. 

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