IPTV complements public TV’s service offering in spades, says APTS chief

The Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), PBS and Verizon announced an agreement June 16 under which the telecommunications company will carry the digital multicast channel offerings of public television stations.

“IPTV Update” sought out APTS president and CEO John Lawson to learn more about the Verizon FiOS deal and the role IPTV services can play in expanding the distribution paths broadcasters have at their disposal to reach the public.

Lawson, who helped secure a similar multicast carriage agreement for public television with the cable industry, not only sees IPTV as the next logical step in public broadcasting’s drive to better serve the needs of its viewers, but also has identified it as a critical component in a next-generation, digital national emergency alert system.

IPTV Update: What does the agreement with Verizon say about how public television views the viability of IPTV?

John Lawson: Our goal is to make sure our content is distributed across all platforms. But we are particularly excited about IPTV. Any medium that provides for interactivity and consumer choice really complements public television’s service offerings, and IPTV provides that in spades.

IPTVU: Are you or public television in general seeking a similar agreement with AT&T for its LightSpeed IPTV service? If so, where does that stand?

JL: We are, but those discussions are really pretty much at a standstill. We had serious discussions with SBC before the merger, but it seems that we are having to revisit a lot of the same ground with the new team that was covered during our discussions with SBC.

IPTVU: Is the agreement with Verizon part of a larger strategy on the part of public television to exploit new distribution alternatives? If so, could you characterize that effort?

JL: Yes it is. The approach that public television had taken up until a few years ago was primarily regulatory and legislative in nature. We were able to reach a breakthrough with the cable industry in January 2005 through business negotiations and have continued that method of operation with Verizon.

However, we have had to maintain a strong legislative posture regarding direct broadcast satellite. They have been much less willing to engage in serious discussions than our partners in the cable industry or Verizon.

IPTVU: You said in your statement accompanying the announcement of the Verizon deal that, “The agreement also recognizes the unique role that public broadcasters play in national homeland defense efforts and provides for carriage of emergency public safety information.” Please elaborate.

JL: We have — based on the work of our station members in Kentucky and elsewhere — concluded that broadcast digital television could play a unique role in emergency communications. And in October 2004 our association reached agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a pilot project in the national capitol region to test that concept.

The pilot was highly successful and led to funding for phase two and we are hopeful for funding of a national rollout of a new digital emergency alert system. This would greatly expand the reach of the current analog EAS, which has it s roots in the Cold War.

The pilot passes messages from DHS through IP. The system uses DTV datacasting of IP based emergency messages, which are received and retransmitted by a variety of communications networks. Because it’s all IP, DTV really becomes the backbone of a network of networks for widely distributing emergency information.

For example, in the pilot, using the DTV transmission of WETA, emergency messages were broadcast throughout the region, received by a number of mobile phone and paging companies, as well as Comcast, XM Radio and commercial broadcasters, and seamlessly and simultaneously redistributed to their customers. So, the fact that it’s IP traffic not only makes it very easy to distribute the content across many platforms, it also allows the government to encrypt certain information for conditional access on a need to know basis.

IPTVU: Commercial broadcasters face uncertainty at the commission and in Congress over the issue of digital multicast must-carry. What lessons can they learn from public television about this issue given that public broadcasters now have secured multicast carriage from both the cable industry and now Verizon?

JL: Our agreement with NCTA requires us to refrain from advocacy around cable must-carry issues. And I am sure the commercial broadcasters can find their own way in this area. However, one clear advantage we had was that we were actually multicasting already.

Our stations had to raise more than $1 billion dollars from state legislatures, private sources and eventually Congress for the digital conversion. And we based those funding appeals upon explicit commitments to provide a new generation of content and services for the public and this included new digital multicast channels.

That way, when we sat down with cable, we had what they call in the Middle East "facts on the ground" in the form of local and regional multicasting. Within 10 months of our conclusion of the cable carriage deal, two of these services were scaled up from regional to national services and two new multicast services were launched on public television.

In our case, our strong commitment to actual multicast services gave us a very strong position both at the FCC and in negotiation with the MSOs.

IPTVU: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JL: We believe that DTV makes it possible to bring back over the air broadcasting. We need to reposition what to many is their grandfather’s technology as something cool and liberating — reintroduce the concept of wireless TV. But that means the broadcast engineering community really has to pay attention to the quality, power and reach of their broadcast signal. We have to think in terms of reaching consumers — real people — with digital receivers and not just cable headends.

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