The Negroponte Switch, And Bait

So this is one of those fill-in-while-Wayne-Friedman-is-out TV Watch columns in which I confess what an old fuddy-duddy I am, because there are two stories circulating through the TV industry as I pen this column that illustrate for me just how much the rules have changed. The first is the Federal Communications Commission's surprise decision to zero-base its plans for the broadcast TV spectrum that was freed up by the conversion to digital TV. The second is the not-so-surprising announcement of Comcast's merger with NBC Universal.

The stories breaking within 24 hours of each other seem to symbolize just how much the communications industry has changed since I began covering this business 30 years ago, and how much regulatory policy can influence those shifts.

Yes, I know that the deal announced by Comcast and GE ostensibly creates a programming joint venture combining the broadcast and cable programming assets of the two companies, but the reality is that Comcast, the largest provider of cable and broadband subscription services in the country, controls 51% of it. That's something that you never would have seen happen when the FCC first established cross-ownership rules preventing broadcasters from owning cable operators and vice versa -- but it shows how much competition federal regulation and new technologies have fostered.



The other story, about the FCC's sudden public notice for comments on whether and how it should recapture spectrum from broadcasters, illustrates how federal policy can make or break media industries. It also tells me why the real bet is on wireless media, not the wired kind controlled by companies like Comcast.

Basically, the FCC wants to recapture the broadcast spectrum freed up by the digital transition to give the wireless infrastructure more bandwidth and speed, enabling the kind of 4G networks that will allow consumers to access the kinds of services from hand-held devices that they previously could only have gotten from tethered ones.

The digerati are calling this an example of the "Negroponte Switch," a concept coined years ago by MIT Media Lab Founder Nicholas Negroponte, in which he predicted a point would come when TV and the telecommunications would switch their wireless and wired roles. Specifically, Negroponte predicted that as the needs for high-speed, mobile networks increase, regulators would reallocate the limited bandwidth of the radio spectrum to wireless data services, and that TV and other media would move to cable.

Well, that certain seems to be happening now. But I would argue that another switch may also be on the horizon -- one in which the kind of TV and other media we now get from cable, satellite and over-the-air TV services, may ultimately be accessed from a wireless, mobile Web infrastructure. It's already happening today via the wired Web (YouTube, Hulu,,,,, etc.), and it's just a matter of bandwidth before it happens via the wireless Web.

3 comments about "The Negroponte Switch, And Bait ".
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  1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, December 3, 2009 at 11:56 a.m.

    Totally agree.

    Mobile TV won't be limited to mobile on your handset - pico projection technology will soon enable handsets to project television on the wall, and HDMI will let flatscreen TVs play data from 4G networks.

    And that's just the start - I don't think we've begun to scratch the potential of micro-networked television networks.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 3, 2009 at 12:37 p.m.

    Pico projection and mobile porn (see prior mediaposts) - just saying. The playground may never be the same.

  3. Kevin Barry, December 4, 2009 at 10:11 a.m.

    I read "Being Digital" over 15 years ago, but as I dimly recall, the Negroponte Switch was based on the proposition: "why would you use wireless spectrum for something that is accessed when you're not moving around?" Unless you believe that wireless spectrum will be virtually infinite (which would be the exact opposite of what Negroponte was saying), why would playing video off a hand-held device in your house be the PREFERRED way to access the highest quality content? The screen isn't moving, you're not moving, there is a perfectly good wired infrastructure into your house. I mean, you can play video that way, but is it the best use of a limited resource like wireless spectrum? Whatever the capabilities of wireless, wired DOES have virtually infinite bandwidth.

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