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Don’t Overlook the Benefits of OTA

It’s hard to beat a medium that is low-friction, bufferless and free

Radio World’s “Guest Commentaries” section provides a platform for industry thought leaders and other readers to share their perspective on radio news, technological trends and more. If you’d like to contribute a commentary, or reply to an already published piece, send a submission to [email protected].

The author is a retired broadcast engineer who has been involved with advancing radio and television throughout his career, including for Qualcomm/MediaFLO, Harris, Nautel and ONEMedia LLC/Sinclair.

There are days when I feel like Ira Wilner, who wrote a piece here in reply to my commentary about NextGen TV.

Why bother with OTA broadcast? That is the question, isn’t it? But then, several explanations come to mind.

Fred Baumgartner, Radio World guest contributor

OTA is free. It’s hard to beat free. Streaming delivery requires an ISP or wireless data payment. Subscription satellite is needed when one drives through nowhere. Admittedly, many of us have connectivity in all the places we want it for other reasons; thus, sometimes it is a “sunk cost” for listeners, but always an additional, buy-it-by-the-bit, per-listener CDN cost for broadcasters.

OTA is low-friction. It’s hard to be smoother than navigating on-off/volume/tune. 

OTA doesn’t buffer. It does not (and should not on NextGen) require searching with a browser. Done well, there isn’t even a “channel change” delay. 

Try surfing through the dial on IP. Try scanning for local stations when travelling. I like local. On Sunday nights, I could stream “The Big Broadcast,” WAMU’s longest-running program, which I became addicted to when I commuted east; but I dial up KCFR or KUNC here in Denver instead. I am that lazy. I hate friction.

And if we don’t have an FCC license, just exactly what are we? Pause and contemplate what we’d be without a signal and those magic call letters.

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Sure, like most SBE-certified engineers, I might be an RF guy, but I am confident there is abundant value in OTA … and it is worth expanding it to NextGen Broadcast. Even pirates will risk arrest to have an OTA signal.

Our business is selling attention by creating content and delivering it. A big piece of that delivery is wireless. Today’s content is IP. 5G (eMBMS) and 3.0 are competing over who will deliver IP broadcast content. The carriers have momentum with their Radio Access Networks. Broadcasters have momentum with content, sales departments and brand. 5G and 3.0 are designed to work together. 3.0/UHF is considerably more effective, efficient and thus more economical for one-to-many delivery to any reasonable numbers of listeners. NextGen is a migration. My simple prediction is that AM/FM delivery becomes less popular, and streaming and NextGen broadcast delivery will become more popular for radio.

I think it’s a blessing that radio isn’t handcuffed to AM/FM. NextGen Broadcast and streaming distribution aren’t for everyone. For the rest of us, we might want a relationship with the NextGen broadcast distribution consortiums, and we might want to invest some time and effort as an industry or as entrepreneurs to develop the NextGen Radio experience and tools.