Broadcasters push mobile technology to support spectrum fight

In April, eight television stations in Washington, D.C., will broadcast a signal to a new class of devices that can show programming on mobile devices.

In its fight to retain spectrum from a federal government that wants wireless airwaves to expand broadband, the broadcast industry is using the emerging mobile DTV initiative for much needed support. Applications such as emergency alerts and breaking news events are being cited as vital to public service.

It’s also become clear that not only is the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV standard critical to the broadcasters’ spectrum argument, it is critical to their future growth. In the past decade, broadcasters have lost 25 percent of their audience at home.

Beginning in April, eight television stations in Washington, D.C., will broadcast a signal to a new class of portable devices that can receive and display programming. It works even in cars traveling at high speed. In all, 30 stations in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have installed the necessary equipment at a cost of $75,000 to $150,000.

“To access TV on a cell phone, on a laptop or in the car is a game changer for local broadcasters. It will provide a renaissance for over-the-air broadcast TV,” Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman, told the “New York Times.”

Perhaps so, but the technology faces an uphill battle with not only established competition, but the federal government threatening to reclaim at least part of the broadcast spectrum for what it considers far more important purposes.

The DTV mobile technology will be used on portable televisions with up to 10in screens, and smartphones and laptops with special adapters. The devices must be within about 60 miles of a broadcast tower for reception. Having to add special adapters to mobile products has always been difficult sell to consumers.

The first devices will become available in April. They include a $249 TV DVD player from LG; a $120 device the size of a cigarette box from Valups, a Korean set-top box maker, that retransmits a mobile signal to an iPhone, iPod or BlackBerry over Wi-Fi; PC dongles and set-top boxes for automobiles from iMovee; and a $149 iPhone/iPod mobile TV cradle from Cydle.

Mobile DTV will compete with FLO TV, a mature subscription service developed by Qualcomm that offers programming from the four major commercial broadcast networks and Comedy Central, ESPN and others. To watch FLO, subscribers must buy a $200 receiver or a compatible smartphone and pay $150 for a year’s subscription, or $200 for two years.

FLO is already available on many mobile phones due to deals with wireless carriers, who have a financial interest in selling the service. The broadcasters have not announced any deals with wireless carriers, putting them at a major disadvantage for reception on mobile phones. So they are working around mobile phones, targeting other devices such as laptops and portable television, as well as mobile signage and other applications.

So far, the FCC has not let up, continuing to suggest that the airwaves now used by broadcasters is the best place to get the needed spectrum. Many agree that since the broadcasters were loaned the digital spectrum in the first place by the government, it should be the easiest to reclaim.