Mobile TV levels playing field for broadcasters, Gray Television's Jim Ocon says

Since the first CATV system was built in 1949, originally called Community Antenna TV, cable, satellite and wireless operators have been eating into North American broadcasters' audience, and with it, broadcasters' revenues. But with ATSC mobile TV rolling out, the pendulum is swinging the other way, says Jim Ocon, VP of technology at Gray Television, whose NBC affiliate in Omaha, NE, WOWT, launched one of the first North American mobile TV channels last July.

"From the financial perspective, [mobile TV] had to be a priority for Gray," Ocon says. "It's a way to make money with our transmitters. TV transmitters cost millions to install. And if you look at the actual over-the-air penetration, it's only about 20 percent. [Then ask], how many people have cell phones? So use your transmitter to reach cell phones."

Until the digital conversion, broadcasters, except for their Web sites, weren't in the new media game. With mobile TV opening up opportunities for new services with new streams of revenue, it's a new ballgame. "It's a great equalizer," Ocon says. "When broadcasters went digital, it was [about] more than pretty pictures. It's about the services we can roll out with digital television. The technology is designed for different business models — DVR services, pay-per-view — all that's in the [ATSC-M/H] DNA."

Building audience numbers and making money are both important reasons for broadcasters to go mobile; however, Ocon gives a third reason that he says is the most important of all: saving lives. “As broadcasters, we have an inherent, mandated responsibility to provide information to the general public," he says. "In emergencies, the mobile TV technology will save lives. The first station we implemented was in tornado alley."

To illustrate, he shares a personal experience with emergency broadcasting when he worked for NBC in California.

"When the Loma Prieta earthquake [1989] hit, people discovered they couldn't use their cell phones any more." Even with the best technology available, cell phone towers can only support 40 simultaneous connections per cell, Ocon says. "Mobile broadcast technology, ATSC-M/H, is going to be relied on. We're putting out way more bandwidth than 2G, 3G, and even 4G. We need to step up our education on this."

Since rolling out mobile TV last summer, WOWT has gotten a good response from viewers, Ocon says. "We're finding an awful lot of interest, especially when they hear it's free. After we launched, we had viewers call and say, 'I don't care what this technology costs; I want to have this."

But there's also plenty of confusion out there about what broadcast mobile TV actually is, Ocon says, with people calling the station to ask where they can download the app. Instead of an uphill battle explaining the difference between unicast and broadcast, WOWT's answer takes a page from the new media playbook. "When we say 'broadcast,' people think, 'old school,'" Ocon says. "So we say it's wireless, and you download the stream. You don't need a client app on the handset."

The biggest challenge Ocon sees going forward is getting devices into the hands of viewers, and he predicts that some broadcast stations will offer free handsets to speed uptake of new mobile TV services. In Gray's college markets, for example, providing a handset receiver will be [an important way to get the word out].

The industry, Ocon says, needs to get "out of the gate. Let's get some pictures and devices out there. I'm confident that our best days are ahead of us."