As far as cord cutting goes, it’s hard to beat Warren Trumbly. Not only did he turn a painting in his office into a DIY antenna capable of receiving free over-the-air TV signals, Trumbly is also the president of KAXT One, a broadcaster that is behind a dozen niche over-the-air TV stations in the Bay Area that exclusively cater to cord cutters. KAXT One is only broadcasting over the air and has been flourishing ever since the digital switch-over two years ago, but Trumbly now fears that all of this could be lost if the FCC goes through with its plan to sell TV spectrum to mobile operators. “Free TV has been thrown under the bus,” he told me during a meeting in his studio in San Jose, Calif. this week.
The FCC has been pushing for a while to get some 120 MHz of spectrum from the TV broadcasters and it sell them to the highest bidder. The auction for these frequencies could net anywhere between $6 billion and $33 billion, depending on who you ask. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is opposing these plans and warning that it could lead to the closure of some 210 of its member’s stations.
KAXT isn’t part of NAB, but a much small and less influential coalition. Trumbly believes that the impact on low-power stations like his will be far worse. Close to 3,500 low power TV stations would be affected by the spectrum changes, according to NAB estimates, and Trumbly and KAXT One Vice President Ravi Kapur told me this week that they’re uncertain about their future in light of these developments. A proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to tie the spectrum auction to the debt ceiling bill was recently defeated in Congress, but Democrats and Republicans are both drafting bills to get access to some of that TV spectrum, possibly allowing broadcasters to receive a portion of the money the spectrum nets at auction. Trumbly said he’ll get some money at best, and nothing at all in worst case scenarios. “They will get rid of us one way or another,” he said.
To be fair, most people would probably never notice if KAXT went off the air tomorrow. It’s a small mom-and-pop broadcaster with none of the glam or clout of the local ABC or NBC affiliates. KAXT has been benefiting from the digital transition two years ago and has since taken that opportunity and run with it. The station managed to cram a dozen TV sub-channels on one frequency and somehow managed to become the only channel 1 in the nation. Its San Jose studio has a bit of technological daredevil flair. Some kids fresh out of high school were busy building a server when I visited. At one point, Trumbly showed me a few cheap no-name MP3 players, only to explain that those were running the company’s digital radio stations. An iPod classic was used as a video server for KAXT’s TV guide.
However, there’s also another part to KAXT. The broadcaster is currently home to a number of ethnic stations, including an Indian station and a Spanish-language stations with locally-produced news and entertainment programming. That type of content is resonating with local communities, who increasingly embrace over the air TV simply because subscribing to foreign-language tiers on cable is an expensive proposition without any local tie-ins. Kapur told me that one of KAXT’s three Vietnamese stations recently sold 4000 antennas to its audience. Those communities would be left in the cold if local, low-power TV was to go away, he said, adding: “Over the air TV is the last frontier for independent providers of content.”
So why doesn’t KAXT just go online and broadcast all of its programming over the top? It’s a good question, but also a bit of a hypothetical. Bandwidth is still expensive, especially for small outlets. Just ask Leo Laporte from TWiT, who recently had to briefly shut down the live stream of his online tech network on Roku because of too much demand. Multiply this with 12 stations, and you’ll see that there could be a problem, at least in the short term.
But for Trumbly and Kapur, it’s also about principle. They just don’t believe that big mobile operators can serve local communities as well as a local broadcaster, and they have a feeling that this is just another step towards more media consolidation. Trumbly also doubted the claims that the wireless broadband services that are supposed to be launched on the disputed frequencies will benefit small towns at all. “The idea that they are going to give broadband to rural communities is a farce,” he told me.
The debate around frequency auctions is a murky one to begin with, with some doubting that there even is enough demand for the drastic steps that the FCC has in mind. It’s also a power play between big broadcasters and their advocates on the one side and telcos on the other, with each making the case that they’re better suited to deliver content to consumers. Then there’s unlicensed spectrum, which could be another casualty. Regardless of how the final outcome will look like, Trumbly and Kapur fear that they’ll be on the losing side. Said Trumby: “The independent license holders are on their own.”