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Planes, trains and automobiles

By Craig Birkmaier

The 1987 movie classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” began in New York City, two days before Thanksgiving. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is eager to get home so he can enjoy the holiday, but bad weather intervenes. His flight from LaGuardia to O'Hare is diverted to Wichita, KS, after a snowstorm hits Chicago. What makes the trip even longer is that Neal is stuck next to one of those good-natured, annoying talkers who won't shut up — Del Griffith (John Candy), who is a shower curtain ring salesman armed with an endless supply of dumb jokes and pointless anecdotes.

The Nokia Mediascreen is a portable/mobile DVB television and data receiver.

Here's a pointless anecdote for broadcasters, many of whom still think that DTV is some kind of dumb joke. According to statistics from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), in 1987 there were 883,778 subscribers to wireless telephone services. Apparently, Neal and Del were not among them, having to resort to a communications device that is slowly vanishing from the domestic landscape — the pay phone.

In 1987, broadcasters had just begun the process of developing an advanced television standard; they were not even thinking about digital TV. What broadcasters were thinking about was the potential for interference from two-way radio services, which were seeking the ability to share spectrum reserved for television broadcasting.

In 1986, the FCC was poised to grant land mobile the use of unused TV channels in the nations ten largest markets. In 1987, broadcasters asked the FCC to delay making the land mobile decision; they asked the FCC to begin a proceeding to determine the spectrum requirements for an advanced television service so that they could deliver the wonders of HDTV.

Another pointless anecdote: According to the CTIA, as of June 2001, there were 118,397,734 subscribers to wireless telephone services. In little more than a decade, Americans have cut the wires and grown accustomed to mobile telecommunications. We now expect to be able to communicate with anyone, anytime, from virtually everywhere. We take it for granted that entertainment and information services (including two-way data) will be available in planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention buses and taxi cabs.

Many upscale vehicles are now equipped with two-way satellite data services. This year two digital satellite radio services were launched. And car theater systems now are being offered as an option on another American icon, the minivan. Recently, the FCC authorized Boeing to move forward with plans to offer two-way data services for commercial air carriers. And WiFi wireless data networks are popping up everywhere, in schools, businesses, homes, airports and even Starbucks.

Another important and highly profitable component of today's mobile communications infrastructure is a terrestrial broadcasting service — radio. It is ubiquitous, but most important, it is wireless.

An AM/FM radio is now standard in virtually every vehicle; portable radios are found in virtually every home, at the office, at the ballpark, at the beach, etc. Sony defined the term walkabout portability with its Walkman personal audio entertainment systems. It also has sold millions of personal NTSC television receivers in the form of the Watchman.

But receiving picture through the air has always been problematic, plagued by ghosts and other goblins. As was the case with radio, consumers accepted TV for what it was, until something better came along.

In remote areas, Community Antenna (CATV) systems took picture out of the air, redistributing them by wires. And in big cities — plagued by multi-path — Master Antenna (MATV) systems were used to deliver TV by wire to residents of large apartment buildings.

Cable TV was totally reliant upon broadcast content until a new wireless transmission infrastructure changed the rules again. Satellite communications has transformed the communications and distribution landscape — many broadcasters still affectionately call them the Death Stars.

While American consumers have grown accustomed to communications without wires, they have largely given up on the idea of un-tethered television receivers. Cable and DBS provide better picture quality, but of far greater importance, they provide greater programming choices than terrestrial broadcasting.

Another pointless anecdote: According to the FCC's eighth annual report on competition in the market for the delivery of video programming, the number of subscribers to both cable and non-cable multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) increased to 88.3 million households as of June 2001, up 4.6 percent over the 84.4 million households subscribing to MPVDs in June 2000. The FCC report did not mention that more than 30 million of these homes now subscribe to a digital television service, while only a few hundred thousand are able to receive ATSC digital broadcasts.

Less than 20% of U.S. homes now rely exclusively upon NTSC television broadcasts. Broadcast lobbyists will quickly point out that nearly half of U.S. homes still have, and may occasionally use, a portable TV. In reality, no one is quite sure how many sets are connected to cable or DBS versus an antenna.

Whatever the current reality, the trend is clearly NOT toward the kind of ubiquity enjoyed by radio as a wireless service. The well-documented problems with reception of 8VSB transmissions bring into question whether DTV will be able to support portable reception, much less mobile reception. The ATSC is currently evaluating modifications to the standard with an eye toward support for walkabout portability, but receiver cost and complexity suggest that it will be many years before the DTV Watchman will become a reality.

Meanwhile, none of the spectrum assigned to television broadcasting in 1987 has been vacated for land mobile, cellular, PCS or wireless data services. This is despite the fact that the 1996 Telecommunications Act called upon the FCC to auction channels 52-59 and 60-69 by September of 2001. Channels 60-69 would be made available immediately upon relocation of incumbents, while channels 52-59 would become available at the end of the DTV transition when all TV broadcasters would be relocated in to the core DTV spectrum (channels 2-51).

The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 attempted to accelerate the auctions to September of 2000, but the same legislation also imposed market tests on the DTV transition, turning the scheduled January 1, 2006, return of NTSC channels and the DTV transition into a joke.

After repeated delays, the auctions are now scheduled to take place on June 19, 2002, but legislation has already passed in the House to postpone them again. Nearly everyone — except for the stations currently occupying the 700 MHz spectrum — would like for the auctions to be delayed indefinitely.

The FCC has established rules that would allow successful bidders to pay the stations currently using the 700 MHz spectrum to vacate it immediately, and it has authorized these broadcasters to use their assigned DTV channels to relocate their NTSC service until January 1, 2006, or whenever the DTV market tests are met. Thus, these stations stand to make billions in windfall profits from relocation payments, AND they will not be required to operate DTV facilities until the end of the transition period, if that day ever comes.

The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) is asking the FCC to delay the scheduled June 19 auction because of potential interference with existing NTSC broadcasts. “These digital-channel allotments were not designed to be used by analog facilities,” MSTV told the commission in a May 15 letter.

Even the CTIA is now seeking to delay the 700 MHz auctions. Earlier this year, it filed with the FCC for a delay, which was denied in early April. An April 10 CTIA press release condemns the FCC action: “Going forward with a June auction severely limits the ability to develop a rational spectrum management policy,” said Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of CTIA. “The public lost, public safety lost, and the broadcasters — who will hold the real auction following the FCC's — must be laughing all the way to the bank,” he said. “It looks like the broadcasters will get their billion-dollar ransom for the spectrum Congress gave them for free in 1996.”

Wireless competition

Meanwhile, on April 23, the FCC authorized a new spectrum sharing plan, which could enable a third terrestrial multichannel TV competitor.

Outside of the U.S. attempts to revitalize terrestrial television broadcasting, others have not been faring well, either. In Great Britain and Spain, early attempts to create premium multichannel digital terrestrial television services have failed. In Australia, the only other country outside the United States to launch digital HDTV services, consumer interest has been equally dismal. Multichannel standard-definition programming and data broadcasting are now being discussed as potential options.

Recent reports suggest that Brazil is leaning toward the Japanese ISDB terrestrial broadcast standard because it offers the best performance in mobile applications. And in Europe, interest is growing in the use of DVB service parameters that are optimized for portable and mobile reception of DTV services.

Television broadcasters face a world of uncertainty and growing competition. While interest is growing in HDTV and other enhanced television services, it is now clear that multichannel competitors have the upper hand in delivering HDTV content to this niche market, and it appears that no existing television distribution service is in a rush to push enhanced services like interactive TV and data broadcasting.

In the 15 years since 1987, little has changed in the world of television broadcasting. Everything has changed outside of that world. Consumers are moving on to digital TV and the Internet. Advertisers are following the consumers and learning how to use digital technologies to target their messages.

And broadcasters seem content to let competitors deliver their content rather than trying to redefine themselves to do the only thing that their competitors cannot — delivering bits to things that move.

FCC authorizes MVDDS

For most of the past decade, Broadwave USA (a.k.a. Northpoint) has been lobbying the FCC to allow it to share the frequencies used by Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) operators to deliver digital television and data services via a terrestrial broadcast system. Since DBS services utilize a highly directional dish oriented to the south, Broadwave USA and other companies advocating the sharing of the DBS frequencies have demonstrated that it is feasible to use the same frequencies to deliver signals using terrestrial transmitters located to the north of the directional receivers that would be used for the multichannel video distribution and data service (MVDDS).

The DBS industry has opposed this form of spectrum sharing, contending that it may interfere with reception in some locations. Clearly, the DBS systems were also concerned about the competitive impact of a third terrestrial multichannel service. The new FCC rules may, however, have turned the tables, providing an incentive for existing cable and DBS operators to bid for the use of this spectrum, which will be licensed in a yet-to-be-determined number of geographic component economic areas (CEAs), analogous to existing television markets.

Here are some of the specifics of FCC action. (The URL for the full news release is included in Web links with this story.)

  • Dismissing without prejudice the pending applications of Broadwave USA, PDC Broadband Corporation and Satellite Receivers for terrestrial use of the 12 GHz band.
  • Adopting a licensing system for MVDDS based on CEAs, with one spectrum block of 500 MHz available per CEA, and, deciding to use the general competitive bidding rules set forth in Part 1, Subpart Q, of the Commission's rules to resolve any mutually exclusive applications for initial MVDDS licenses.
  • Requiring MVDDS operators to ensure that the adopted EPFD limits are not exceeded at any existing DBS customer location. If the EPFD limits are exceeded, the MVDDS operator will be required to discontinue service until such time that the limits can be met.
  • Adopting a “safety valve” that allows individual DBS licensees or distributors to present evidence that the appropriate EPFD for a given service area should be different from the EPFD applicable in that zone.
  • Permitting fixed one-way operations, but excluding mobile and aeronautical operations.
  • Declining to permit dominant cable operators from acquiring an attributable interest in an MVDDS license for a service area where significant overlap is present, but not restricting DBS providers' eligibility to acquire MVDDS licenses.

Broadwave USA had been seeking to use the spectrum nationwide without paying for the licenses because of their pioneering work in this area. But other companies have implemented similar systems, and the FCC ruled that existing laws require that they offer the spectrum via the competitive bidding process. Broadwave is challenging the decision.

The rules will allow the owners of cable systems to bid for licenses in areas they do not currently serve. DBS operators will be allowed to compete for the licenses in all markets. By using the same frequencies for the national satellite service and a local MVDDS service, a DBS company could deliver local broadcast signals and two-way data services using the terrestrial component in each market.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

Web Links

White paper on mobile DVB-T reception 5/99:

Motivate project and pictures of European mobile TV demos:

FCC affirms MVDDS authorization and adopts service rules for the 12.2-12.7 GHz band:

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