WASHINGTON—For most of a century, commercial over-the-air broadcasting has been a profitable enterprise.
With the advent of the Internet, telecommunications-—especially wireless telecommunications—has been generating massive profits even as the revenue stream for broadcasters is pinched. Is it any wonder that broadcasters are trying to think up ways to tie their spectrum to that of telecom companies, hoping to divert some telecom revenue their way?
istockphoto.com In an effort to promote access to wireless broadband data for every American, the FCC a year ago articulated a "National Broadband Plan" that seeks creative ways to provide service to the underserved, as well as maintain robust communications capabilities for first responders and emergency workers.
"The clock is ticking on our mobile future," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently said. "Demand for spectrum is rapidly outstripping supply. The networks we have today won't be able to handle consumer and business needs."
Several proposals have been made by broadcasters to use part of their spectrum to handle some of the most data-intensive Internet content. One such proposal is for Converged Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting combined with orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (CMMB-OFDM), a hybrid DTV/broadband delivery system recommended by WatchTV, an LPTV group based in Portland, Ore.
The FCC denied a request for an experimental license for a CMMB-OFDM test by Watch TV, stating, "[CMMB-OFDM] technology is inconsistent with the existing ATSC standard for transmission of digital television in the United States."
Greg Herman, president of WatchTV, described CMMB-OFDM as more sophisticated than ATSC, and said that his organization wanted to show that the technology is capable of co-existing on a non-interfering basis with current ATSC modulation. "I believe my request to modify the existing experimental license to allow me to test OFDM-based modulation on existing broadcast channels, was not starting a new service at all," Herman said. "Viewers… should be given a choice as to the type of content they want and/or need and that broadcasters should be allowed to migrate to the best technologies available, to provide both broadcast and broadband services to the public."
Blair Levin, former executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the FCC and currently a Communications and Society Fellow at the Aspen Institute, proposed that spectrum could easily be reclaimed by switching from MPEG-2 encoding to more efficient MPEG-4 technology. As logical as this sounds technically, the window to switch DTV from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 probably closed five years ago.
"There have been discussions about [the move to MPEG-4] but it would require swapping out every receiving device," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, "That would be a daunting challenge for both broadcasters and our viewers."
Sinclair Broadcasting presented a proposal for an advanced modulation scheme similar to what the wireless carriers call Long Term Evolution (LTE). Dubbing the technology ATSC-EV, it uses a form of OFDM to provide as much as 150 Mbps downlink data in a 20 MHz channel, more than twice the efficiency of today's ATSC/MPEG-2 broadcasting. (See "Is LTE in Broadcast's Future?" by Doug Lung.)
Without a doubt, Sinclair's status as a major broadcasting group with a significant presence in the Washington, D.C., area lends gravitas to its proposal. The company also pointedly opposed the initial rollout of ATSC broadcasting, but this opposition ultimately provided a great service to improve the state of ATSC receiver technology. In other words, when Sinclair speaks about DTV technology, people tend to listen.
Although Sinclair's ATSC-EV proposal has not been fully evaluated by the FCC, it seems to have the same bottom-line concern as switching from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4: Who is going to pay for all the new receivers it will require?
Capitol Broadcasting in Releigh, N.C., another DTV pioneer, is proposing that broadcasters use a slice of their spectrum to feed signals directly to cell phones with a system that Capital calls mDTV. mDTV would "push" popular content to the phones, such as the latest viral video. Instead of bogging down a wireless carrier's network with millions of random requests for the same one-minute video, Capitol is suggesting that broadcasters use a bit of their current channel allocation to push the video to smartphones.
The benefit to broadcasters is in the partnership with the wireless carriers: For every bit that broadcasters deliver, they presumably would get a "bit" of the carriers' revenue. The wireless carriers benefit by not having their networks swamped by some viral content.
Right now, the big carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) all heavily subsidize the phones that their customers carry. Because of this subsidy, each carrier has ultimate control of the features built into the phones, and no carrier is going to willingly put TV receiver chips in phones—that could eliminate a possible revenue stream the carriers now have by providing their own cellular TV services. At the moment, there is no benefit to the carriers in providing television receive capabilities in their phones.
WatchTV provided several prototype cell phones to the FCC to support its CMMB-OFDM proposal. Note the whip antennas. "We believe that carriers have great incentive to begin deploying devices with mDTV capabilities," said Jimmy Goodmon, vice president of new media for Capitol Broadcasting Corp. "We believe that consumers want to be able to tune to live news, sports, and entertainment programming on the go as well."
Goodmon said that broadcasters might be willing to help the carriers out with their smartphone subsidies, although he believes there are other reasons why this technology could make sense for wireless carriers.
"[Participating in the subsidy is] an interesting question and one that I think broadcasters would be open to exploring with the carriers," Goodmon said. "As opposed to focusing on the cost side, it might be worthwhile to look at the massive upside mDTV unlocks for the carriers who deploy mDTV enabled devices. When mDTV- capable devices are launched, it is a good bet that broadcasters across the country are going to be shouting from the rooftops to inform viewers of the new service and how to get it."
One final thought about mDTV is that it really doesn't involve any new technologies, or the study and testing they require. The FCC could simply require that all new cellphones with displays above a certain size (say, 2.8 inches) include an mDTV receiver chip. Whether the service would help with the bandwidth crunch would be left to coordination between broadcasters and wireless carriers.
Broadcasters have had to deal with a heavy burden of losing spectrum, most of which went to cellular companies who are reaping handsome profits from providing an ever-expanding menu of services—including video services for which they charge money. Strange as it may seem, some people will pay to watch "CSI" on their cellphones, when they could watch it for free on home TVs.
As long as people are demanding more services on their cellphones and broadcasters have the bandwidth to deliver at least some content, a marriage of broadcasters and wireless carriers makes a lot of sense to some broadcasters.
The question is: Does it make sense to the cellular companies?