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Is 'Negroponte Switch' Still Relevant?

TMCnet Feature

November 05, 2014

Is 'Negroponte Switch' Still Relevant?

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By Gary Kim
Contributing Editor

Multitasking behavior no longer is unusual when people are “watching television.” But multitasking itself is not as important as other ongoing changes in consumption of video content.

What television “is” is now less certain. The immediate question is whether consuming video entertainment on demand, on a smartphone, PC, tablet or other device, is “television.”

That matters for content producers and owners, as well as distributors. But at some point, regulators and policymakers might face even greater challenges, as “television,” in substantial part, also involved decisions about how to use spectrum.


Three decades ago, researcher Nicholas Negroponte (News - Alert) of the Media Lab at MIT suggested that broadband content devices received content “over the air” while narrowband devices received content using cables.

Negroponte argued that the reverse situation should prevail. A better use of available communication resources would be to deliver broadband content using cables and narrowband content using airwaves.

That came to be known as the "Negroponte Switch".

Updated for changes over three decades, the new issue is that linear content is being augmented by on-demand content, and devices increasingly are mobile or untethered, not fixed.

That might suggest the Negroponte Switch is outdated. Paradoxically, the issue of over the air delivery—in the Negroponte Switch sense—remains relevant.

Mobiles typically continue to use airwaves for video and other content delivery. But sometimes that access is shifted to the fixed network (cables to a location, then Wi-Fi for local device access).

The new wrinkle is on-demand video delivery (OTT streaming), sometimes accessed by people using the mobile network, sometimes using the fixed network.

A study by research firm TNS (News - Alert) found that 48 percent of global respondents watching TV  in the evening also simultaneously engage in other digital activities, such as using social media, checking their emails or shopping online.

That has been called multitasking, and TNS calls it screen stacking. Either way, the principle is the same: people use multiple digital devices at the same time.

Some 25 percent of respondents watch content on a PC, laptop, tablet or mobile daily, including 33 percent in mainland China and Singapore and 32 percent in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, more people actually choose to watch TV and video online rather than on traditional sets, TNS argues.

After dinner, 26 percent tune into content on their digital devices, in contrast to 14 percent who “watch TV,” TNS notes.

The point: the Negroponte Switch, then as now, has potential implications for the way we use, and the way regulators allocate, spectrum.




Edited by Maurice Nagle


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