Message: 2
Date: 4.1.93
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

The Bit Police: Will the FCC Regulate Licenses to Radiate Bits?

The FCC has decided to give television broadcasters 6 MHz of additional spectrum for HDTV on the condition that currently used spectrum is returned within fifteen years. It is a foregone conclusion, thank goodness, that HDTV will be digital, and will probably operate at 20 million bits per second.

Now, imagine that you own a TV station and the FCC just gave you a 20 million bits-per-second license. You have just been given permission to become a local epicenter in the bit radiation business. What would you do with your license?

Face it, the very last thing you would do is broadcast HDTV - if only because the programs would be scarce and the receivers few. Anyway, as I hope I made clear in the last issue, television's DNA is not connected to picture resolution.

So this is what you might do: First, with a little cunning, you'd probably realize that you could broadcast four channels of digital, broadcast-quality, standard NTSC television, thereby increasing your audience share and advertising revenue. Upon further reflection, you might decide to transmit three TV channels, two digital radio signals, a news data channel, and a paging service.

It continues. At night, when few people are watching TV, you might use most of your license to spew bits into the ether for delivery of personalized newspapers to be printed in people's homes. Or, on Saturday, you might decide that resolution counts (say, for a football game) and devote 15 million of your 20 million bits to high-definition transmission.

Literally, you will be your own FCC for those 20 million bits, allocating them as and when you see fit. That is, if the Bit Police don't stop you.

To be perfectly clear, this is not what the FCC originally had in mind when it allocated HDTV spectrum among existing broadcasters. The body politic, particularly groups hankering for spectrum, will scream bloody murder when it realizes that TV stations just had their current broadcast capacity increased by 400 percent, at no cost, for the next fifteen years! Does that mean we should send in the Bit Police to make sure that this new spectrum is used only for HDTV?

The Model is the Medium
What will happen in television over the next five years is so phenomenal that it's difficult to comprehend. On the one hand it is easy to state: We are in the process of leaving an analog world and entering a digital one. For example, we once thought that audio, video, and data were different and discrete types of communication, but now we see them converging. They are all bits.

In the near future, bits will be assigned to a particular medium by the broadcaster at the point of transmission. This is usually what people mean when they talk about digital convergence or bit radiation. But in the more distant future, bits won't be confined to any medium, as such, but will in-stead constitute a digital model that is transcoded into audio, video, or print by an intelligent receiver.

Currently, we allocate spectrum to TV, radio, and various applications, in part because the highways of the sky required (we thought) well-marked and impenetrable median strips. One could easily determine, in advance, what would be found in the spectrum: voice, data, video, and so on. But soon that will be gone - consider a phone company, which has no idea whether you are passing voice, e-mail, or fax over its wires.

The next step, which assumes an intelligent receiver, gets even more complicated. Consider the possibility of a digital model of weather information. Your receiver, no less a computer than a TV, will digest and process a broadcast of that model (purists are welcome to call the model the medium). It will convert the model to sound or image, hard copy or soft copy, in greater or less detail, at your discretion (or its own inference). This is to say that the output is determined after the fact. By you.

This truly is data broadcasting, and beyond regulatory control. Probably most readers assumed that my mention of a Bit Police was synonymous with content censorship. Not so! The consumer will censor by telling the receiver what bits to select. The Bit Police will want to control the medium itself, which makes no sense whatsoever. The problem, strictly political, is that the new allocation looks like a handout. While the FCC had no intention of creating a windfall, minority and special interest groups will raise hell because the bandwidth rich are getting richer.

While there will be a fuss and some regulatory legislation, in the end all bits will be deregulated.

WIRED in a Wireless and Multimedia World
Take an example: this magazine. WIRED, like most magazines, is in a purely digital form during its creation. The text is in computer-readable form. The images are scanned and the layout produced on a desktop publishing system. The style of WIRED's creation is the epitome of both a digital process and a digital lifestyle (my contributions, for example, are destined to be written from the seat of an airplane and sent to WIRED via e-mail). Only when the final pages are output to film for printing does the digital representation vanish.

Let's pretend that instead of providing WIRED in hard copy, we could transmit it in bits. The subscriber could transcode them into print form or more interactive soft copy. We would create a very different magazine - among other things, we would provide varying levels of detail, our cutting room floor would be empty, and the magazine (if we still use the word) would be conversational.

The message is that all information providers will be in a common business - the bit radiation business - not radio, TV, magazines, or newspapers.

I do not believe there will be a Bit Police. The FCC is too smart. Its mandate is to see advanced information and entertainment service proliferate in the public interest. There is simply no way to limit the freedom of bit radiation any more than the Romans could stop Christianity, even though a few brave and early data broadcasters will be eaten by the Washington lions in the process.

In the last issue, my e-mail address was listed as Negroponte@Internet. That bogus address was a misjudgment, meant to leave the impression that most of my communications with WIRED are by e-mail, which is true. The above address is real. That does not mean I will answer all fan or hate mail, but at least I will see it.

Next Issue: Debunking Bandwidth

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[Copyright 1993, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 1.02 April 1993.]