Three Dog Night taught us that one is the loneliest number, and though most music fans would insist the rock trio was waxing philosophic on the nature of romance, you could make a snarky argument the group was also singing about U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) television channel assignments. (Okay, maybe not.) For you see, once upon a time, there really was a broadcast television “channel one” in the United States, but more than 60 years ago, it was legislated away.

From 1938 to 1948, VHF channel 1 was a viable, sanctioned television broadcast frequency in the United States, though exactly which frequency range was covered by channel 1 changed twice during the decade. The precursors of contemporary broadcast stations such as WNBC in New York and KCBS in Los Angeles, along with several others, broadcast originally as channel 1 television stations. This was an experimental period, however, and for much of that time, the FCC allowed certain radio services and television stations to broadcast on many of the same VHF radio frequencies. This meant that radios would sometimes pick up television audio, and TVs would sometimes pick up radio broadcast audio. After World War II, U.S. TV broadcast stations multiplied, exacerbating these issues.

By 1948, the FCC realized that its policy of allowing television broadcasts and radio communications to share certain VHF radio frequencies was no longer tenable, and the line of demarcation the agency drew between radio and TV signals left channel 1 in radio’s range rather than television’s. Thus, from 1948 onward, no broadcast television station in the United States could legally transmit on channel 1, and no U.S.-marketed television receivers would be manufactured to receive broadcasts in that range.

While this may appear a mere odd footnote in TV broadcast history, channel 1 is far from the only TV broadcast frequency that the FCC gaveth, then tooketh away. While in most cases, the channel ranges that were rescinded were auctioned off for commercial usage by competing broadcast technologies, in at least one case — that of UHF channel 37 — a decidedly non-commercial enterprise was the motivation for denying television activity on the allotted frequency.


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For what official purpose was UHF channel 37 removed from service for television broadcasts in North America — a justification that was markedly different from the commercial spectrum auctions that describe nearly every other U.S. phase out of TV channels?

Channel 37, which covers the UHF band of 608 to 614 MHz, is exclusively reserved in the United States and Canada for radioastronomy broadcasts.

In 1963, the FCC pulled channel 37 out of service so that radioastronomers could have a foothold within the UHF range to use. To grossly oversimplify radioastronomic science, radio telescopes need to “listen” at regular intervals throughout the radio frequency spectrum, and if TV stations were allowed to “pollute” — uninterrupted — a wide swath of frequencies for broadcast, radioastronomy would effectively have a blind spot to certain range of stellar emissions. Channel 37 is kept quiet so that radio telescopes can listen to the portion of the EM spectrum that television currently dominates.

The FCC slightly backed off the total channel 37 broadcast ban in 2000 by allowing extremely low-power medical telemetry signals in the 608 to 614 MHz range. Those are the short-range, low-output radio signals that allow medical monitors to communicate vital signs and other information to recording devices in hospitals. Unless there is a radio heart monitor operating on the surface of a radiotelescope dish, it’s unlikely these devices would cause much of a problem.

To understand just how extraordinary it was that the FCC effectively gave away channel 37 to science rather than selling it off, one needs looks at the agency’s history of TV channel rollbacks. In 1953, the FCC added the UHF range of TV channels 14 to 83, only to rescind channels 70 to 83 in the early 1980s for use by AMPS mobile telephones.

When digital television was first introduced in the United States, it was originally granted the complete VHF and UHF range duplication, offering channels 2 through 69. Then, in the early 1990s, channels 52 through 69 were rolled back so the FCC could auction them off to mobile phone and wireless network providers. Moreover, once analog television broadcasts are shut down in the United States on June 12, 2009, the old analog spectrum will be auctioned off for similar wireless network usage. That said, even after the conventional analog TV broadcast spectrum is “reclaimed” for other use, channel 37 will remain largely reserved for radioastronomy; a lone non-commercial island in a sea of commercial broadcast activity.

That’s not just some charitably unchanging channel-charting; it’s a scientifically satisfying spike in Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

Check out this week’s quibble.

The quibble of the week

This week’s quibble comes from the April 14, 2009 edition of Geek Trivia, “Strength in (phone) numbers.” TechRepublic member deepsand disputed my description of the labeling convention for old-school telephone exchanges:

“‘Before 10-digit dialing codes, the U.S. phone numbers employed letter-number combinations formatted as two letters, followed by as many as four numbers.’ The 2 letters were not randomly selected, but where actually the alpha equivalents of the 1st 2 digits of a 3-digit exchange. Thus, the 349 exchange became DI9, or Dickens 9. These came into use with the advent of direct dialing. These old exchanges still exist, even though few recall the use of letters, let alone the exchange name. DI9-5325 will live forever in my memory.”

I was unable to offer such a specific description of pre-10-digit dialing conventions. Thanks for supplying one in the quibble space, and keep those quibbles coming!

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