Consent, thy name is radio

CED Magazine
January 2011

Almost as soon as a promising new medium for news and entertainment arrived in America’s cities many decades ago, entrepreneurs in rural communities began thinking of ways to extend its reach.

By transmitting a signal over a physical wire, they reasoned it would be possible to connect distant homes to the originating signal source, allowing them to take part in the new electronic media revolution sweeping the nation’s cities. Not only that, but by charging an ongoing fee for the connection, the pioneering businessmen figured they could earn a return on their investment and pay for the cost of maintaining the service they’d invented.

All of this is well known to students of cable television history, of course. Except that this story isn’t about cable television. It’s about radio.

In particular, it’s about “wired wireless” radio. That’s the logic-twisting name applied to a technical approach for distributing radio signals that was pursued by a handful of engineers and investors in the early 1920s, predating community-antenna TV services by more than two decades.

The principal figure in wired wireless radio, although there were several of note, was a retired U.S. Army major, George Squier. An electrical engineer in the Army, Squier had received a patent in 1911 for a transmission technique known as carrier current transmission. Ten years later, he began a serious effort to make it an essential, if not dominant, method of distributing radio signals.

Other inventors had delved into wired transmission of radio, and in many rural communities of the 1920s and 1930s residents had snaked wires across streets, sharing the signal from a single radio with hundreds of homes. But Squier’s technology stood out. It used a multiplexing technique that assigned the radio signal to an electromagnetic field surrounding an electrical wire. That meant existing electrical and telephone lines could do double-duty by transmitting more than one type of current. With Squier’s system, broadcasters who were wary of investing in expensive transmission systems of their own could piggyback on an existing infrastructure. And in fact, the market seemed huge: By 1923, when Squier licensed his technology to a newcomer, Wired Radio Inc., some 44 percent of U.S. homes were tied to the widening U.S. electric power grid.

It was an inventive approach. But a combination of technology alternatives and economic approaches would doom wired wireless radio. General Electric’s RCA and AT&T, the two main players in radio broadcasting, had begun to understand the value of selling advertising time as a main revenue source beyond the sale of radios. But selling advertising begged for the largest possible audience of listeners, an objective that subscription-supported wireline service seemed to defy. Also, advances in over-the-air broadcasting had made signals more powerful, reducing the appeal of wireline transmission as a way to ensure clear reception. In 1927, the trade publication Radio Retailing published a death knell of sorts for the wired wireless radio industry, claiming it was no longer a viable alternative to broadcasting.

Even so, wired wireless radio wasn’t entirely forgotten. Ironically, it would come to play a role in a contentious 1992 debate over the regulation of cable television, one that continues to exert major influence today.

The concept of retransmission consent – the ability of TV stations to affirm or deny the right of cable providers to carry the stations’ signals – was set into law in the 1992 Cable Act after a Senate-House conference committee worked out a laborious compromise. Part of the legal justification for retransmission consent, as expressed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during the committee mark-up, was language in the Radio Act of 1927 that prevented rebroadcasts of radio station programming without the originating station’s authorization. That language was grounded in the old wired wireless radio era, when some broadcasters objected to the idea that a wired network could freely retransmit their content.

After much debate, retransmission consent made it into the final draft of the 1992 Cable Act, which was passed into law by Congress after an override of a veto by President George Bush.

If George Squier hadn’t doggedly championed wired networks as a means of transmitting radio signals – enough so that at least some station owners lobbied for protection in 1927 – would retransmission consent be part of today’s cable TV environment? It’s impossible to say. But if nothing else, the story of wired wireless radio provides a reminder that the impact of technology can linger even long after the technology fades away.