If you’re old enough to understand the connection between aluminum foil and your TV set, as I am, you’ll probably be tickled to learn, as I was, that we might benefit in the future from technology seemingly as obsolete as phones with dials and long, flexible cords.
I’m talking about rabbit ears.
Not the real ones that you sometimes see bounding through the sagebrush with such velocity they might have been propelled by an artillery piece.
I mean a pair of pencil-width aluminum poles jutting, in the shape of a “V,” above a console TV.
A console TV, by the way, is what TVs used to be before they underwent a drastic weight-reduction regimen and we started hanging them from the wall, like paintings or calendars. Modern TVs are so sleek and dainty that you could probably attach one to the refrigerator with magnets, right beside the pizza carryout number and the vaguely disturbing crayon drawings your kids made at school. I’d like to do this with the dorm refrigerator in my garage, except I don’t have a garage. Or a dorm refrigerator.
But in the hazy past, when screens were not flat and were not meant to be flat (human eyes, after all, are curved), you bought your television set, like as not, in a store that also sold furniture. This was appropriate because TVs were, in fact, pieces of furniture. Significant pieces of furniture. They were made mainly of solid wood and if you tried to move one across the living room you were all but certain to wind up with a hernia or a smashed finger. Or both.
I’ve long believed the reason members of the The Who and Led Zeppelin and other rock bands often hurled TV sets from their hotel rooms was not merely because they took a lot of drugs but also because the hotel TVs were rather more svelte than average, and a normal person could actually lift one and, if desired, propel it through an open window.
Although probably it was just the drugs.
Anyway, we had big TVs but what we didn’t have, at least many of us who lived in the hinterlands, was good and reliable TV reception.
So we had to hook up an antenna that would pull in the signals and ensure we never missed “Dance Fever” or “The A-Team.”
Some people took up the task with the sort of initiative that made this country great — they climbed up on the roof and erected a metal contraption that looked a bit like a scale-model Eiffel tower.
But for many Americans who suffered from acrophobia, or who were loathe to mar the graceful line of their roof, the solution was one that became a defining symbol of that era — a rabbit ears antenna.
If you lived anywhere close to a city of respectable size these antennas were generally effective, just as the single-mast antenna on a car is adept at gathering AM and FM radio signals unless you’ve driven into a cave or a large body of water.
Also you didn’t have to fall off the roof and land in the begonias to put up the rabbit ears.
Yet even TVs equipped with these simple antennas could be prone to interference — the dreaded “snow” that would scramble the picture just in time to ruin the Super Bowl or the season premiere of “Happy Days.”
At some point a curious owner — probably the sort who also messed around with test tubes and blowtorches and pure sodium in the basement — reckoned that wrapping the rabbit ears with aluminum foil might give the antenna an extra metallic jolt that would magically bring Walter Cronkite’s jowls into focus.
This proved to be a worthwhile accessory, at least occasionally, and suddenly there was another use for aluminum foil besides wrapping leftover meatloaf and fashioning hats that thwart the government’s attempts to steal our thoughts.
These days, of course, most of us acquire our TV programming by way of Wi-Fi or a coaxial cable, and we wouldn’t think to drape aluminum foil over our routers or satellite dishes. Probably this would have opposite of the desired effect, for one thing. Also the sight of multiple foil-festooned devices — at least outside the refrigerator — would provoke uncomfortable questions from visitors.
But before we toss old-fashioned TV signals into the room of relics with the carburetor and the cassette tape, let’s ponder the possibilities of what’s known as “white space.”
These are frequencies, whose use is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, that have been left vacant to prevent interference between adjacent TV channels.
(Viewers presumably didn’t want channel 2 programming bleeding into channel 3, although I suppose that could make for an interesting, if somewhat hallucinatory, experience. Imagine, if you can, simultaneously watch, say, “The Love Boat” and Bob Ross painting happy little paths.)
It happens that those frequencies also are well-suited for supplying broadband internet. Among their advantages, according to people who understand what megahertz means, is that these signals travel a long ways and are not easily blocked by buildings, trees and mountains.
Officials from Microsoft, one of the companies that has been experimenting with white space broadband, say the technology makes it easier, and less expensive, to bring broadband access to about 80 percent of the estimated 23 million Americans who live in rural areas and who don’t have such access. That includes parts of Baker County.
Broadband in this case is per the FCC’s definition — download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. That’s more than a twofold boost in speed for the service I have at home.
I’ve read a fair amount about white space technology over the past week. I think I even understood some of it. There were references to special receivers that customers would need to translate the signals to a form our computers recognize, and something about base stations.
And although I didn’t see a single reference to aluminum foil I guarantee somebody will figure out how to use the stuff to squeeze a couple more megabits per second from the Net.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.