Mysteries of the TV Spectrum Auction

Let’s say you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you’re watching TV with rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, not via cable or satellite. If you live in the green area, you won’t have any trouble receiving a clean signal. In the yellow, you may need an outdoor antenna. If you live in the orange or red zones, you will certainly need an outdoor antenna, and if you’re red, you may still have a tough time. Of course, every over-the-air TV channel broadcasts with its own distinctive coverage pattern— the result of the physics of the specific channel frequency, the antenna height and location, terrain, quality of your home antenna and home receiver, interference with other signals and with physical objects like buildings and mountains. Television broadcasting is a complicated business!

Let’s say you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you’re watching TV with rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, not via cable or satellite. If you live in the green area, you won’t have any trouble receiving a clean signal. In the yellow, you may need an outdoor antenna. If you live in the orange or red zones, you will certainly need an outdoor antenna, and if you’re red, you may still have a tough time. Of course, every over-the-air TV channel broadcasts with its own distinctive coverage pattern— the result of the physics of the specific channel frequency, the antenna height and location, terrain, quality of your home antenna and home receiver, interference with other signals and with physical objects like buildings and mountains. Television broadcasting is a complicated business!

For most Americans, the story was pretty much the same from the early 1950s until June of 2009: turn on the TV, and watch a handful of channels, perhaps a dozen if you lived in or near a big city, for free. In 2009, the number of channels began to double, then triple. Now, I can watch about fifty channels without the help of cable, satellite, internet, mobile technology, or any other means. I just need a TV set, and a decent TV antenna. These days, there is a difference between a television “station”—a license to operate a portion of the local television spectrum (6 MHz, in case you’re keeping score) within a specific geographic area (say, for example, Syracuse, New York), and a “channel” (in technical terms, a “program stream operating on a portion of the 6MHz channel; this is why you see, for example, channels 10.2, or 14.3, when you use an over-the-air television tuner).

So that’s the new status quo. But it’s about to change. Within the next two years or so, the FCC (the government agency that provides and monitors television, radio, and other broadcast licenses) will, in essence purchase, very roughly, 1 in 10 television stations, maybe more, maybe less. They will buy these television licenses in order to sell them to wireless mobile internet operators so that the television spectrum may be used, for example, to stream video any time, anywhere, on to your smart phone or tablet. Most likely, the smallest and weakest of television stations will cease broadcast, including the few that are affiliated with any national broadcast network.

For several reasons, the situation is strange. As a rule, these licenses do not belong to the owners of these television stations, any more than your fishing license belongs to you. It is a permit to operate a broadcast television station, provided at no cost to the broadcaster in exchange for a promise to provide a public service: local news, programs for children, emergency information, and so on. Of course, broadcasters don’t want to simply give the licenses back to the government—why would they, unless they were either required to do so, by law, or, paid a handsome incentive to surrender what is, for many, a valuable asset. This is why the FCC is going to the buyer—the wireless internet provider who will use this spectrum—for the funds needed to encourage the current licensees, the broadcasters, to give up their chunk of spectrum. Why can’t the local TV station contact, say, Verizon, and say, “hey, want to buy our spectrum?” Yeah, that’s a good question, and no, there is no good small answer to that question. There is, however, a good big answer: there are thousands of local television stations, and the FCC is playing middleman in order to maintain some degree of rational organization.

Why? Also a good question, especially when you consider that about 90 percent of U.S. television viewing has little, if anything, to do with the local television stations and their broadcasts. Nearly all of us ignore the thirty or forty free television channels available via any good recent TV set and a connected antenna, and instead choose to pay Verizon, Comcast, or similar companies about $1,000-$1,500 per year to receive nearly 1,000 channels, plus DVR services, on demand, etc., as well as home internet service. So we’re protecting an asset that is vital for about 10 percent of us, and, largely, irrelevant to the rest. Except, of course, when there is an emergency, or so we’d like to believe. In reality, television is probably the fifth most important communication medium in an emergency situation (for example, Hurricane Sandy): first comes word of mouth, probably followed by cell phone, then internet and mobile, then radio, and then, if the power is on and the television stations’ antennas and transmission systems haven’t been zapped by power or ice or other maladies, there’s TV. Certainly, TV does a better job with storytelling—the term “team coverage” comes to mind—but communication of details is better handled, in 21st century life, by other media that are less needy in terms of power and complex operation.

Which leaves us…where? It leaves us with FCC auction in which wireless providers will bid, market by market, to provide the FCC with the funds needed to purchase the spectrum and associated licenses to broadcast on that spectrum, by some companies (and nonprofits) that currently hold those licenses. I am reluctant to use the term “sell the license” because the term suggests that the operator owns something other than a right to operate for a period of time, but the vernacular has the FCC “buying,” so I guess stations are, somehow, selling.

Will this matter? It’ll matter if you have a favorite small television station that struggles to pay its bills, or simply wants to move past the 20th century notion of local television broadcasting in favor of a different idea. Some state or local colleges own noncommercial educational licenses, and provide PBS service, for example, and some of these could go away because the colleges may decide to “sell” and put the money to other use (for example, establishing a new distance learning scheme for the 21st century, or building new facilities for other educational activities, or hiring many more professors, or just endowing their future). An owner of commercial stations—perhaps even a group of stations—might sell to raise capital, and then put that capital to work in another part of the media business, or another business altogether. The FCC is positioning the auction as a means to raise capital for these kinds of opportunities.

Will this really happen? And might it happen again, until most or all of the broadcast television stations are gone? Yes, it will really happen, unless the new FCC chief, Tom Wheeler, can either politically maneuver in another direction (always possible), or some other part of the Federal machine shifts into an unexpected direction. If all goes as planned, some local broadcast channels will go dark (especially in the top 20-30 largest markets), and many channels will find new homes, new channel positions on the broadcast spectrum, a change that will probably be invisible to most consumers who (a) watch on cable or satellite anyway, and (b) see their over-the-air channels “masked” with channel numbers that do not represent spectrum position, but instead, reflect convenience and tradition (for example, channel 10 in Philadelphia has always been channel 10 in Philadelphia, but it has been broadcasting on channel 34 for several years). As for future changes, there is nothing in place to support the contention that this will not be the final auction, but anything is possible, and the need for over-the-air broadcast stations in the top 20-30 markets is doing the opposite of growing. (In areas that are poorly served by cable, broadcast remains viable in small regions.)

So that’s the story, for now. The FCC plans to release a plan in May, and that could change half of what I’ve just written.

Stinking Bishop, or Why British Food Rules

The cheese is named for the Stinking Bishop pear, which is used to make the perry used to rinse the cheese at it ages. The cheese is soft, produced in limited quantities from the milk of once-nearly-extinct Gloucestershire cows. The great care associated with this special cheese is not unusual. In fact, special attention to local foods was a hallmark of my recent journey through the Cotswolds, the English countryside just east of Oxford. Never have I taken a trip where fresh food was so abundant, so front-and-center. If you’re still caught up in the mythology about lousy British food, reality has passed you by.

While we’re on the subject of cheese, I should note two very special cheese shops, one in the Cotswolds railroad village of Moreton-on-the-marsh (beautiful old main street, endless shops and old inns, railroad just a few blocks away). The Moreton shop is called Cotswolds Cheese Company; the one on swanky Jermyn Street in London is Paxton & Whitfield. In  Moreton, I tasted my first Single Gloucester (mild, classy and grassy, but nothing to get me excited about), and my first Double Gloucester (lots of fresh character, earthy, stronger and richer flavor), and also, a Burford (a simple, smooth cheddar). I bought a small hunk of each, a baguette and a blackcurrant-apple juice, and ate lunch on the short train trip to Oxford. In the second, I tasted Stinking Bishop and then benefitted from a very friendly cheesemonger who introduced me to several British cheeses, including an ale-washed Caerphilly that I happily munched whilst window shopping along Jermyn Street (where their London store is located). Great cheeses, all local to Britain, most produced within a two hour drive.

When I visited the Cotswolds, it was asparagus season, and, seemingly everywhere I went, delicate smoked salmon was available. I combined the two, as an appetizer, at Bourton-on-the-water’s Rose Tree Restaurant, and learned something about the taste of fresh English asparagus. It’s sweet. The taste resembles American asparagus–even my local variety here at home–but only somewhat. The flavor is delicate, and welcoming. And, apparently, May is its favorite time of year. I followed by Beef Wellington with local mushrooms and local beef. This was in keeping with another modern, organic restaurant in the same village, The Croft, where I enjoyed one of the beefiest, freshest tasting hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, and also, a tasty Steak and Ale Pie, the latter being a house speciality also available with chicken or fish. Of course, the ale was local.

If there was any lingering doubt about the quality of British country food, a visit to Daylesford Organic presented an extraordinary argument in favor of the flavor and beauty of fresh food. (To learn more, here’s a whole page filled with videos.) I wanted to try every gorgeous fruit and vegetable, then sit down for a proper dinner to enjoy the local, organic fresh meats, and then, dessert. But it was just 10 in the morning, and all I could fit into my post-breakfast appetite was a delicious little scone. Next time, I will build at least one day’s meals around a visit to Daylesford.

Back to Bourton. Here’s dinner at the Dial House, known for its local cuisine and extremely creative dishes (a completely delicious meal, worth the drive to Bourton the very next time you visit Britain):

  • Canapes – Ballantine Ham hock with cornichon (French gherkin) gel on top, smoked butter foam with poached mussels
  • Cauliflower with white truffle oil
  • Homemade – carmelized shallots with garlic and cumin
  • Salmon with lemon air with fromage blanc, keta (caviar), crispy salmon skin, panacotta and cucumber
  • Cornish Brill with cep purée (mushroom), sea aster (flower resembling a daisy)
  • Yuzu (Japanese lime/lemon) with coconut sorbet and chocolate strands
In fact, you should stay over (I did, at the Halford House, a B&B owned by the Dial and just blocks away), if for no other reason than to head for nearby Bibury and the fresh smoked trout (from the trout farm just down the road), and the excellent smoked salmon, both served at a fancy local establishment called The Swan.
Bourton-on-the-water and other Cotswolds villages are not very far from London, just about a 90 minute train ride to another world, a place largely untouched by the industrial revolution, a place whose focus is now shifting toward serious local food. One chef behind this trend is Rob Rees, a visionary I met over tea at Sudeley Castle in Wynchcombe; his unabashed promotion of the region and its stunning food is something you ought to know more about. Rob speaks eloquently about the importance of farm foods, and a local food economy, and more broadly, about the importance of proper food for growing children. He brings industry, government, and family kitchens together in ways that are altogether unique, as explained on his web site.
Oh, I nearly forgot about the side trip to Canterbury, which is on the eastern side of London (Cotswolds are on the west). Take the train to Canterbury West (there are two train stations), and when you walk out of the station, look immediately to the left. You will see an old train shed turned (six days a week) into a local farmer’s market called The Goods Shed. Sample the smoked haddock, made just outside of town, and note the smooth, non-fishy, salty-sweet flavor. Try the fruit-enhanced Florentine cookies. Taste the apple cider, also from nearby. Then, do the cathedral and your shopping, and return for dinner (here’s the spring 2012 menu). Mine included perfect scallops. The restaurant menu is built from produce available at the market.
Me, I’m just back, ready to write some more about British food (a topic I never thought I would ever write about), this time from Cardiff and Pembrokeshire. More later. Meantime, enjoy Bourton-on-the-water in the photo below.

Bye Bye Bookstore (Mea Culpa)

I love bookstores. Also, record stores, art supply stores, just about any kind of store where creative work defines the merchandise.

And, I’ve been fortunate because there are three good independent bookstores less than a half-hour from my home: one in the county seat, one in a town dominated by tourists, and one in a university town that’s also an easy drive (plus, several more that sell used books).

Unfortunately, this month, we’re losing the neighborhood bookstore that’s just five minutes from home. They didn’t make it. They cite e-books, internet bookstores, and the nearby Barnes & Noble (the nearby Borders closed a few years ago). The economics confuse me. Maybe you can make sense of it all.

My family buys a lot of books: probably 40 or 50 books each year. We buy more books, for personal use, than anybody we know. Assume 50 books at $20 per book, and that’s $1,000 in retail business per year. I would be proud to say that we’ve bought all of them from our local independent booksellers, but I can’t say that because it’s not the truth. It would be fair to say that we’ve bought about 1/4 of those books while traveling (we especially like Toadstool Bookshop in New Hampshire, for example), and half of them online because of the convenience, price, or quick delivery. The other 1/4, we probably buy locally.

One good example: a biography of the old superstar, Will Rogers, priced at $24.95 in paperback from a local bookstore, available for $16.47 from Amazon (with free shipping). We’re smart consumers–we saved $8.48 because we bought from Amazon. In a year, we make this decision maybe 20 times, so maybe we save $200 per year by buying this way. As I said, we’re smart consumers.

But we’re stupid citizens. Our extra $200 per year matters to a local bookseller. If 100 customers paid the higher price instead of saving the money, that’s an additional $20,000 per year for the local bookseller. If 1,000 customers, the additional revenue nears a quarter-million dollars.

So here we are, all of us, the book lovers and the book consumers, happily saving money by shopping late at night and taking advantage of super saver shipping and the deep inventory that online booksellers provide… all the while forgetting about our neighbor, the small business person, who is spending every late night trying to figure out how to keep the local bookstore’s doors open.

When I think about this, I feel stupid. As I said, I really like bookstores, but just this morning, I ordered two books from Amazon, and I saved $7.33 on one of them and $15.78 on the other. This afternoon, I thought about visiting my local bookstore, the one that has been five minutes away from my house for the past few years.

It was closed.

I feel foolish. Why didn’t I do more to keep a community institution in place?

%d bloggers like this: