DTV Spectrum Appropriated For Non-DTV Uses

You may have heard, as part of the sales pitch for transitioning broadcast television from analog to digital, about the capability of a single DTV channel to carry as many as six distinct program streams. DTV would thus be good for the consumer because it would result in an expansion of viewing choices.
Think again: meet MovieBeam. The service, developed by Disney, uses “unused portions of [DTV] signals” to deliver movies on demand to subscribers. Users pay a fee for the special set-top box used to receive and decode “rented” movies, and then pay between $2-4 per movie. Users have 24 hours to watch their chosen flick before it is automatically deleted from their box.
MovieBeam was rolled out on DTV stations in 29 markets this week. Participating stations include Disney’s ABC-owned affiliates as well as “National Datacast’s Network of PBS stations.” National Datacast is a curious company: it has contracts with some 300 television stations to use a portion of their DTV signals to deliver a variety of services, including music, movies, and software on demand.
The big lie here is that there is no “unused portion” of a DTV channel, if stations actually planned to offer up to six channels on a single signal. Dedicating a portion of a DTV channel to purposes other than TV programming reduces the amount of bandwidth available for multiple (free) channels.
Others are also cashing in on their access to DTV spectrum to provide services other than broadcasting. iBlast, whose backers include the Tribune Company, Gannett Company, Cox Broadcasting, The Washington Post Company, The McGraw-Hill Companies, The New York Times, Emmis Communications, Bonneville International, and Journal Broadcast Group, among many others, offers a similar service to MovieBeam.
U.S. Digital Television, a business founded by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the Hearst-Argyle TV station chain, offers 12 encrypted basic cable channels over DTV spectrum for $12.95 a month. A few years back, Clear Channel experimented with offering a semi-broadband ISP service to subscribers using DTV spectrum on the stations it owns.
Depending on your perspective, you can call this convergence-in-progress or a broken promise, or both.