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, ABC.com, CBS.com, Fox.com, NBC.com, etc.), and it's just a matter of bandwidth before it happens via the wireless Web.