Close to the edge

To be successful, broadcasters must make their services available on portable devices.

The end of the analog broadcast era finally has some broadcasters thinking about what being digital will really mean for an industry that has thrived for decades by delivering linear entertainment and news to local television markets.

There is widespread interest in developing the standards for broadcasting to mobile and handheld devices. It is less clear, however, what the interest level is among consumers to buy products that support these standards. To date, consumer interest in paid video subscription services through cellular telephone providers has been minimal. Most of these services do not offer localized content, an area that local broadcasters may be ideally suited to develop. The question: What kind of content can broadcasters create to serve these markets?

Early adopter

In the late ’90s, there was significant enthusiasm for the concept of data broadcasting. Companies such as Geocast, iBlast and AccessDTV were formed to build what many thought would be a new industry, using broadcast bits to push all kinds of bits to local markets. DTV broadcasting was to become another lane of the information superhighway, helping to bypass some of the traffic jams on the wired Internet.

There was, however, one requirement out of the hands of these companies and industry pundits. That requirement was — and still is — a reliable way to deliver bits to both fixed and mobile devices. In 2000, Sinclair Broadcasting, Nokia and others collaborated to provide a proof of concept demonstration at NAB using the European DVB standard. A Nokia Mediascreen prototype provided reliable reception of streaming video and data in venues throughout Las Vegas and at 70mph in a vehicle on I-15.

Unfortunately, because of reception issues and a general lack of interest by broadcasters, the nascent data broadcasting industry floundered, and the early pioneers gave up. Seven years later, at NAB2007, two prototype enhanced ATSC systems were demonstrated, and now the ATSC is working on developing a harmonized standard in time for the 2009 shutdown of NTSC.

In the meantime, the World Wide Web kept growing, and Wi-Fi networks started popping up everywhere, providing wireless two-way data to notebook computers, and hybrid cell phone/PDA devices like the Blackberry, Treo and iPhone.

If consumers are not interested in watching TV on tiny 2in to 3in screens, and the Wi-Fi powered Web is driving the market for untethered data services, is there really a viable market that DTV broadcasters can serve?

The answer is an unequivocal yes! It is still too early to make any judgments about what consumers really want, especially considering that the technology for receivers is just beginning to mature and few, if any, appropriate services are available, other than Web sites that are typically optimized for the larger screens of a desktop or notebook computer.

A local cloud of bits

Consider the iPhone. Why is it a breakthrough product, and why is it relevant to DTV broadcasters?

To begin with, it delivers better-than-NTSC quality to a 3.5in, 480 x 320 pixel high-resolution screen (160dpi). Downloaded TV shows like ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” can be enjoyed anywhere at any time. (But downloading shows to watch later requires planning and frankly, I did not buy an iPhone to watch TV.)

The real breakthrough is that Apple has created a computer with a 3.5in screen that actually allows users to surf the Web, send and receive text messages and e-mail, and manage the information needed on the go. Apple has solved several important problems with the iPhone:

Human interface. The touch-screen interface is intuitive and easy to use.

Battery life. The 2000 Nokia Mediascreen prototype had an Achilles’ heel; total battery life was less than two hours, due in large part to the large screen size. The iPhone can easily get through a busy day with battery capacity to spare.

Platform. It’s a real computer, and as such, it will be able to support many new applications, including those that DTV broadcasters can develop if Apple sees the opportunity to include a DTV tuner in future models.

Broadcasters are in a good position to cover their markets with a cloud of bits that will be useful, not only to people on the move, but also in providing updates to fixed screens like the HDTV in the family room and the computer in the den.

Linear video programming is one way to attract eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers. Unfortunately, most of these ads are untargeted, and frankly there are so many these days that watching a network TV show has become a painful experience. On the other hand, those same eyeballs routinely go to the Web to get information about products and to buy them.

It’s not the ads that are the problem; it’s the relevance of the information. If there is one place where relevant information can be useful, it is when you are looking for something, like when you are out shopping or trying to find a restaurant for dinner .

Today we still rely on an ancient technology for directory services, the phone book. It’s already out of date by the time it shows up on the doorstep. Online directory services are no better, despite the fact that they could include text, photos and video. To be fair, most commercial enterprises are putting their resources into their Web sites, which can easily be found via search engine like Google.

So why is Google interested in radio and mobile TV? The answer is context. Google helps companies reach customers across multiple media with the information they are looking for.

Imagine that the market you serve is covered with a cloud of bits about the market. One of the interesting quirks of the iPhone is that it finds wireless networks as you move around. Imagine a cloud of bits that you could access as you move around with useful information about almost everything in your market. Data broadcasting can create that cloud, and Wi-Fi networks can provide the back channel to allow those eyeballs to interact with it.

Picture a directory service that is downloaded to your TV, PC or handheld device. The main database can be delivered in many ways, including DTV broadcasts, but the broadcast path is best for delivering smaller updates on a continuous basis. The computers in your car or home can store the database, which can then be updated via data broadcasts. A restaurant could print out its daily specials to put in their menus, and the same information could be delivered by a local broadcaster as an update. DTV broadcasts could be used to provide off-hour updates to wireless point-of-sales devices in stores. Local traffic conditions could be delivered in real time to the computers in vehicles, or a handheld device.

The iPhone caused me to reset my expectations for a handheld device, especially with respect to the kinds of services that a small handheld device can support. Now it is time for local TV broadcasters to reset their expectations for the kinds of services that they can deliver to their communities.

As a starting point, broadcasters need to think of their traditional linear video services as an application, not the core of their business. I did not get that episode of “Desperate Housewives” from the local ABC affiliate; ABC sells these shows via Apple’s iTunes store.

In the future, consumers will get their entertainment fixes from many sources; it is not clear whether you, as a broadcaster, can survive as a local gatekeeper for network TV shows. But you can survive if you focus on what you are good at — serving your markets with information that is relevant for viewers and advertisers.

You already rely on cable and DBS to deliver their signals to fixed receivers. Now you need to optimize the front ends to the pipes that you control — the bits that you radiate, and the bits that you feed the Internet via your Web portals. Together these pipes can be used to create services for all kinds of receivers, including fixed, mobile, portable and handheld.

Web links

Read Craig Birkmaier’s August column, “Life after NTSC?” online at

Elsewhere on the Web, check out:

• “A Visual Compositing Syntax for Ancillary Data Broadcasting,” by Craig Birkmaier, February 1997

• DTV Answers, NAB’s DTV information site

• ATSC Data Broadcast standard