Phase out over-the-air signals? (was: Re: WCRB to simulcast on 88.7 in R.I.)

Aaron Read
Mon Jun 6 11:37:22 EDT 2011

>>Is anybody thinking about a future without over-the-air broadcasting,
>>with its place taken by internet streaming?

There has been much speculation on this future, especially with the
rise of in-car internet (and internet-like) technology, like Microsoft
Sync.  And a lot of doomcrying that once internet devices reach the
car, radio is doomed.  Like many such proclamations, it's both true
and false at the same time.

The wireless internet infrastructure needed to even begin to equal the
listenership capacity that AM/FM/XM radio has is several orders of
magnitude above where the wireless infrastructure is currently at in
this country.  Or any country.  And I don't mean rural, I mean
anywhere...including highways and urban areas.   The problem is not so
much technology.  If that were all, the doomcriers would have a point
thanks to Moore's Law (technology advancing by doubling every 18
months).  But it's actually more a question of politics.   Wireless
infrastructure expansion effectively requires more tower construction.
 Tower construction is regulated by local zoning boards.   **Tens of
thousands** of local zoning boards.  All of which inevitably deal with
local folks who hate towers and fight them every step of the way.
Federal law for cellphone tower siting has broad provisions for
overriding local zoning but the process must be observed and that can
take months or years.   So any buildout that expands capacity by
"orders of magnitude" will take many, many years.  Decades, more
likely.   I'd say 30 or 40 years but I've learned never to pontificate
past 20 years, and even 15 years is usually too far to see anything

Now, there is some truth to the doomcrying because wireless internet
doesn't have to EQUAL the capacity of radio.  It merely has to draw
ENOUGH capacity away from AM/FM to make it unprofitable.   THAT is a
much, much harder thing to pinpoint, but logically it could (and
probably will) come much sooner.   Especially given how poorly the
profit margins are on radio already.  The trick, of course, is that
certain subsets of the AM/FM radio industry will become unprofitable
before you won't see a day when suddenly everyone's just
turning their transmitters off because it's not worth the electricity.
 But you (likely) will see AM stations starting to disappear (a la
Canada).  And you'll see certain formats on FM disappear.  And then
you'll probably see a faster decline in commercial radio than in
public radio, since public radio's non-profit mission is more
resilient and also their product is, generally speaking, more popular
amongst listeners.   Although there are many factors that could
flipflop that analysis, too.

For example, one factor that wireless internet still hasn't come close
to approaching AM/FM on is simplicity.   With radio, you turn one
knob, turn another, and bam - you got content.  Apple has worked
wonders on simplifying very complex computer-like functions, but it's
still nowhere near that simple to get content on an iPhone...much less
most other wireless internet devices.  But that could totally change.

Personally, as someone who has worked both in radio engineering and in
cellphone/wireless tower siting, I am not terribly concerned about the
iPhone destroying AM/FM as a business anytime in the next 10 years.
Most likely not in the next 20, either, and like I said...I wouldn't
be concerned too much until well past 20 years, but I don't make
guesses that far out.

Aaron Read

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