Chasing Broadcasting's Future?
may 31, 2011
By Tom Wheeler
The author, Harry Jessell, a perceptive commentator on and protector of the broadcasting business, attributes this conclusion to an “epiphany” he had while reading stories of how streaming broadcast information was delivered by mobile networks during the recent epidemic of tornadoes. He was moved by one family’s report that they huddled in their bathtub while keeping abreast of developments by watching TV reports on their iPhone. “They saw it as a lifeline.”
Amazingly, of course, the people huddled in the bathtub weren’t benefiting from the use of the broadcast spectrum; they were receiving it in a much less efficient manner over the wireless network. Instead of this important common information being broadcast to multiple mobile devices at once it was instead streamed individually to each viewer on a traditional one-to-one wireless channel. It is precisely this kind of one-to-one rather than one-to-many delivery of video content that is exacerbating the spectrum shortage in this country.
“All the great technology and expertise that broadcasters can bring together to cover storms mean nothing, if they can’t deliver it to people where and when they need it,” the article wisely observed. “Where and when they need it” clearly wasn’t in the TV room or the bedroom on a big screen set; it was in the bathtub as a frightened family huddled together around their iPhone.
But American television broadcasters have thus far failed in their promise to bring television to the mobile device on a widespread basis.
Ask any laptop, or tablet, or handset manufacturer why they don’t add the antenna and software necessary for mobile digital television (mDTV) and they’ll tell you it’s because there is a dearth of content available from the local TV stations. Sure, there was a much ballyhooed test of mDTV in Washington over a year ago, and a handful of stations across the country are actually transmitting, but the promise of using television spectrum to deliver to devices that aren’t in the bedroom or kitchen is just that, only an unrealized promise.
Without a doubt, broadcasting is the most efficient means of delivering common content to a large audience. Yet television broadcasters are not stepping up to take advantage of their spectrum to provide mobile services. Meanwhile mobile carriers such as Verizon Wireless are embracing broadcast concepts. The CTO of that mobile operator recently announced that their new high-speed, high-capacity LTE network would include a one-to-many broadcast component.
Television broadcasters continue to promise they’ll eventually do something. “Coming up later this year or early next is mobile DTV,” the TVNewsCheck article claims. That refrain has been playing so long that it’s now in reruns. Major device manufacturers took broadcasters’ assurances at face value a couple of years back, only to be burned when the content never materialized. mDTV was much ballyhooed at April’s NAB Show, but little beyond “Stay tuned for updates” PR has followed. [Note: my firm, Core Capital Partners, invested in mDTV technology].
Which brings us to the topic of the highest and best usage of broadcast spectrum. Verizon Wireless is investing billions in a new LTE network that will include point-to-multipoint broadcast capabilities. The vast majority of broadcasters, however, haven’t invested the less than $100,000 necessary to begin distributing mobile DTV. And all the while broadcasters rail at the Obama Administration’s proposal to allow some of them to voluntarily sell the spectrum the government gave them for free (while permitting them to exploit digital technology and move their signal on to another channel).
I’ve been mystified why broadcasters have declared jihad against the voluntary spectrum auction. Getting big dollars for an asset for which you paid nothing while still being able to run your traditional business over cable (the vast majority of its reach anyway) and maintain a broadcast signal at another point on the dial seems a pretty good business proposition – unless you really are serious about providing new and innovative services and need all that spectrum.
Actions speak louder than words and the broadcasters’ inaction on mDTV resounds like a thunderclap. The reruns of “mDTV is just around the corner” are, like an over-exposed sitcom, growing stale. Absent action the “we’re special, we’re innovative, we can’t quit using this valuable spectrum” argument rings hollow.
I still believe that many broadcasters are planning to offer mDTV and will not sell their spectrum. But they sure have a strange way of going about that. Harry Jessell is right, broadcasting’s future is all about mobile. What’s hard to understand is why so many broadcasters are running away from that future and in the process discouraging manufacturers from putting mDTV devices in the hands of consumers – even when they’re huddled in the bathtub.
Tom Wheeler is Managing Director of Core Capital Partners, a venture capital firm specializing in early stage companies, including next generation wireless services. For almost a dozen years prior to joining Core Capital he was the president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.