Many people — including me, until quite recently — don’t realize that you can get HDTV the old-fashioned way, over the air. You just need an antenna just like your family used before you had cable. But here’s the interesting thing. With low-definition television, the reception was much better over cable than over the air. So nobody who had cable would ever watch broadcast channels over the air. But high definition television isn’t like that. Under most circumstances, you’ll get better picture quality using an antenna than using your cable or satellite hookup.
Why? Well what happens is that most cable providers use a fair amount of compression when transmitting the video. The compression algorithms work pretty well, but they’re not flawless, especially when there’s motion involved. So live sports, in particular, often features a lot of program degradation. Over the air the images are uncompressed. And since modern HDTV broadcasts are digital, there’s none of the fuzziness or poor reception associated with analog television. A channel either doesn’t come in at all, or comes in crystal clear. Buy an antenna and try it out for yourself. You may even find yourself doing what I did and dropping cable altogether. There’s lots of content available on Hulu and Netflix, and you can watch NFL games over the air and they’ll look better than your cable package ever did. If they ever manage to stage an NBA season, I’m going to reinvest some of the money I’ve saved by dropping cable in buying NBA League Pass over Apple TV.
To bring this back to a policy point, however, you might ask yourself why legacy broadcast networks use all these radio spectrum for the little-used purpose of over-the-air broadcast television. This is especially puzzling given objective shortages of spectrum available for wireless data. The answer is that the federal government gave the TV stations the spectrum for free and then prohibited them from selling it to anyone, so even though this is a really low-value use of the resource it’s the use we’re stuck with.