How HDTV killed firefighters, birthed the Broadcast Flag, and screwed America

This long, excellent article on the history of broadcast spectrum allocation in America is the single best explanation of the mess that we're in today. In short: greedy broadcasters tricked Congress into giving them free spectrum for a second set of digital channels, so that Americans who bought digital TVs would have something to watch. Then they did nothing with them. Meantime, cops and firefighters and EMTs are (literally) dying for some of that squat-upon spectrum so that they can coordinate their rescue efforts. Remember how everyone rhapsodized about how postmodern it was that the World Trade Center rescuers used cellphones and Blackberries to stay in touch? It wasn't because the private sector's phones are designed by smarter people than the emergency-squads'. It's because there's no spectrum available to emergency workers because the broadcasters (now largely owned by or affiliated with movie studios and cable companies) have stolen it all from the American public.

This stuff was used as the justification for the Broadcast Flag, too — spectrum allocation is practically the root of all evil in America, when you get right down to it.

From the beginning, the key combatant has been the National Association of Broadcasters, which organized itself into a lobby in the 1920s, even before the Federal Communications Commission was formed in 1934. For more than 75 years, the NAB has been fighting to help the broadcasting industry hold on to its slice of the spectrum — the frequencies TV and radio stations use for their broadcasts — in the face of demands from competing technologies and rival industries, and even public safety concerns.

In the 1980s, when the FCC appeared ready to reallocate some of the spectrum for public safety, the NAB persuaded Congress to block the commission and hold off the change because, the broadcasters said, they needed the spectrum to develop high-definition television. Yet soon thereafter, the broadcasters abandoned HDTV, and it nearly died


(via Dan Gillmor)