Smartphones Trump Free Rural TV

Story by Corin Cates-Carney, photo illustration by Kristin Kirkland

Smartphone Reception in Montana is slated to improve, but in exchange, some people in small rural towns are likely to lose access to free TV.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission plans to auction off airwaves given up by TV stations to provide more space for mobile companies to expand wireless data services, like 4G networks.

While major broadcasters have little to worry about during this switch, smaller TV translators and low-powered stations are at risk of getting bumped.

Across Montana, more than 420 community translators allow people living in rural areas to receive TV signals from larger markets. Those who can’t afford satellite or cable depend on those translators, broadcasting engineer Charlie Cannaliato said.

Cannaliato, who services and maintains about 60 translators in Montana, said 25 to 75 of them could cease operations when the airwaves are auctioned.

Jim McDonald, president of the National Translator Association, said the plan affects mostly rural and elderly people who live near small or agricultural towns.

He thinks the FCC’s decision to sell airwaves to wireless companies came from officials who believe broadband will eventually replace television.

McDonald said the older generation, which relies on the morning paper and evening newscasts for information rather than real-time updates delivered to pocket-sized gadgets, is what’s keeping the government from a quick transition.

“There is a trend, but it’s not as fast as the FCC wants to make it,” McDonald said. “I think we still have close to a generation to wait for people to finish using their TV.”

Corin Cates-Carney is a 2014 graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.