Thursday, January 24, 2008

The End of TV as I Knew It

It was one of the great mysteries of my childhood. You changed TV stations by turning a dial, a dial that started at "2". What happened to channel 1? So off I went to the library and found out the ugly truth: Channel 1 contains the entire FM spectrum. Each TV station took a very wide spectrum to send off their analog signals.

But as of February 2009 the rest of the analog channels will disappear as well. Today the FCC starts the auction for that spectrum. FCC spectrum auctions are the poster child for combinatorial auctions where bidders bet on subsets of goods and have lots of nifty complexity issues. But I don't want to talk about math today, just want to mourn the analog space that carried the classic TV shows I watched as a kid. The moon landing was broadcast live over those airwaves about to be sold off forever.

Much ado is made about Google entering the bidding. But the spectrum will likely go to major telecoms like AT&T and Verizon. They will use the spectrum mainly for high-speed wireless data. And what will we use that high-speed data for? Watching TV on our cell phones. The circle will be complete.


  1. Television over phones is one of the least exciting benefits that more spectrum will bring. There is not a giant amount of marginal benefit in watching video on a tiny screen as your battery drains (but this probably won't stop telcos from trying to them to you).

    Email and the web is just the tip of the iceberg, think location aware services and the merging of analog and digital communication mechanisms.

  2. Re: Comment #1

    Tell that to the Japanese!

  3. Anonymous 1: I believe they said something very similar to that about home computers.

    Lance: TV is being rethought in more ways than one. The long awaited/hyped convergence of Internet and TV seems to be happening, and accelerating due to the writers' strike. I posted about this a couple months ago.

  4. And for fun, here is a math problem:

    There are 10 cards, 1-10.
    Edi takes 4 cards from them and show in a line 3 from them (he can hold in his hands any card that he want, and he can arrange the rest in any way that he want).

    Tom looks at the 3 cards and has to say what is the 4 card that in Edi hands.

    Of course they think about it from the beginning and thought on a way that the 3 cards will shown what is the 4 card...

    What is the way that will work for every 4 cards that Edi will take?

    Now try to solve it with 15 cards and it still very elegant.

    Now try with 16 cards.... and to the end… what is the maximum number of cards that this is possible? What is the way to success in this case? Edi always get 4 cards and show to Tom 3 cards.

  5. While they are at it why not auction off the previous "digital television" spectrum? Consumers are flocking to non-broadcast communication, why not let the market decide? Broadcast communication has downsides. Germany established it's first radio station in 1923[1], and the National Socialist German Workers Party was soon to follow[2]. Anyone here ever spotted a sociology article which explained this with communication complexity?


  6. Interesting that Lance went to a musty old place called the "library" to figure out what happened to Channel 1... if he had typed what is "channel 1" on tv? into his favorite search engine, he would have found this interesting page that gives a nice historical overview of early TV broadcasts, and the story of Channel 1.

    Incidentally, one of the things that the article points out is that the price of the first commercial televisions was in the $189--$600 range (unadjusted for inflation, I assume)... about the same order of magnitude of this brilliant and cool device.