THE DREAM THAT WON’T DIE? 4K Over-the-Air broadcasting

I personally find it very hard to imagine, but there is a very slim possibility that 4K broadcasting, real over-the-air broadcasting, could begin next year. At the annual National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, there’s a petition circulating that would let broadcasters share otherwise unused channel space for 4K simulcasts. Supposedly there are a number of major players already committed, including Sinclair Broadcast Group which currently operates 154 TV stations. (The question of how one company can operate 154 stations is one for another day.)

The petition says that since there isn’t any new spectrum required, the FCC should at least let broadcasters try 4K on their own dime and at their own peril. The only problem with this scheme is that, frankly, there are so many ways that it just won’t work to get 4K on the air by 2017.

4K OTA would require converter boxes which aren’t made yet.
In order to receive 4K broadcasts, even the newest TVs would require some sort of converter that doesn’t yet exist. The source of this rumor, an article in HD Guru, imagines that these could be USB devices. The only problem is that USB devices work differently in different TVs. TVs aren’t all like one brand of computer that will run the same. They all have different innards. At best any converter would have to be something like Chromecast where it hangs off the HDMI port and is powered by USB. This creates other problems — not all 4KTVs have more than one 4K-capable port, meaning that you would be cut off from using your DIRECTV 4K client or other 4K streaming device if you watched 4K OTA. My guess is that we’re 18 months away from retail-ready versions of this technology, even if the 4K standard was finalized today.

This costs money.
I believe that Sinclair Broadcast Group says they’re ready to do this. I just don’t believe that they (or anyone) are really ready to do this in a large scale. I’m talking about entering into complex legal agreements for spectrum sharing, then acquiring 4K content, then engineering a second broadcast site and operating it. That’s a lot to ask from a shrinking industry who claims their revenues are under massive attack from pay TV. They may look at this as a way to gain market share or possibly get more money from pay TV companies, but I just don’t see it.

The broadcast industry has turned increasingly bitter and thrifty in the last twenty years, as competition from cable and streaming has eaten into revenues. They lobbied Congress hard to get subsidies and considerations during the switchover to digital TV, and now we’re supposed to believe they’re going to transition to 4K out of the goodness of their hearts? Pull the other one.

It DOES require an act of Congress
I’m no lawyer, but as I understand communications law, any broadcast you make on the frequencies allocated for TV has to be a TV broadcast. In other words, if you’re using a TV channel, then any TV made today must be able to receive it. Without converter technology, 4K broadcasts would be against the law. Broadcasters are asking the FCC for a massive waiver on the basis of “it’s not hurting anyone.” Maybe it isn’t hurting anyone, because they’re still planning on simulcasting in HD, but that’s not the point. That’s a pretty big waiver that broadcasters are requesting and it’s hard to know why Congress would let it happen. The FCC itself generally takes 12-18 months just to decide what it wants on its pizzas, so imagining that they would get this done without Congress is absurd. And then, looking at how Congress “functions” … it’s hard to imagine that there’s even a tiny chance this would work.

All in all…
This seems like a political pipe dream and even more it seems like nothing more than an attempt to embarrass the current FCC chair and the administration behind him. Emboldened by public support for his stance on net neutrality, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has made several statements about his goal to limit the power of large broadcasters, including forcing every local station to negotiate for itself when dealing with a large company like DIRECTV. He’s also proposed that during blackouts imposed by broadcasters, pay TV companies could use out-of-market locals.

Folks, what’s really happening here is that the very Republican broadcast industry is looking for a way to embarrass the Democratically appointed FCC Chair. They’re proposing something that sounds like it would benefit everyone and harm no one so that the FCC can shoot it down and look like the bad guy. At some point the broadcast industry lobby will try to use this to influence the election. In my opinion there’s nothing more to say about this, other than if I see 4K over-the-air broadcasting in any more than one or two test sites by 2017, I’ll eat my hat.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.