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Local TV stations join for proposed mobile TV service

Desperate to kick-start mobile DTV, a group of 12 television broadcasters have signed a “memo of understanding” that they will pursue a joint venture, called the Pearl Mobile DTV Company, to distribute national television programming via the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV standard.

If launched, such a network would provide subscribers with about 20 channels and reach most of the United States using shared broadcast spectrum. The early content would offer mainly the staples of local television — news, sports and weather information. The number of channels will depend on how much spectrum the joint venture can accumulate from the participating stations as well as from other stations willing to lease spectrum to the venture.

As a member of the consortium, Cox Media Group president Sandy Schwartz said he’s giving stations one year to implement the service. “If we’re sitting here a year from now trying to hammer out an agreement, forget it, the world is going to pass us by,” Schwartz said in an interview at NAB.

The broadcasters who agreed to work together include NBC and Fox stations, Ion Television, Belo, the Cox Media Group, E. W. Scripps, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Television, Media General, Meredith, Post-Newsweek Stations and Raycom Media.

The success of broadcast mobile DTV is still far from certain. To be successful, it will require deals with mobile carriers, new mobile phones that can receive signals and updated programming deals with distributors. Cox’s Schwartz said the group had spoken with mobile phone carriers, but had no contracts.

The broadcasters, obviously late to the game of mobile broadcasting, face fierce competition from Qualcomm’s MediaFLO and MobiTV, both profit-making entities for mobile carriers. MediaFLO has already signed deals with Verizon and AT&T in the United States as well other major mobile carriers in the UK, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia. MobiTV has contracts with T-Mobile, Sprint, Alltel and AT&T Mobility in the United States.

In addition, broadcast spectrum is a contested subject in government now, as the FCC seeks to convert some portions of the broadcast airwaves for new commercial wireless uses. The NAB is encouraging broadcasters to invest in mobile services quickly as a way to counteract growing support for a National Broadband Plan in Congress.

And finally, there’s the fact that broadcasters are normally competitors, not partners. “Broadcasters don’t get along with each other very well,” Schwartz said. “But given how the competitive landscape has changed, it’s a new day.”

Some also question antitrust issues raised by the local broadcasters joining forces. Such a national alliance could face government scrutiny. The motivation of such alliances is usually financial survival.

Mark F. Grady, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, told the “Los Angeles Times” that the antitrust problem could be if this consortium were to lead to a restriction of content offered, as opposed to if the companies were competing against one another.

Schwartz dismissed the obstacles and cited timing as the real issue. “The world is changing and we have to change quickly with it,” he said. “We don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back and feel good about things. The clock is ticking and we need to get this stuff done.”