Jessell at Large

Wireless Becoming TV's Newest Nemesis

Historically, broadcast TV's biggest foes have been cable and newspapers, but now there seems to one more major adversary: wireless operators.Wireless has been lusting after broadcast spectrum, supporting the FCC's incentive auction. That's even more threatening since the auction push is headed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the former wireless trade association chief. Now, with Verizon's nascent LTE Multicast service, it's also planning on making a direct play for TV stations' audiences as well.

A friend passed along a photocopy of an article that appeared in the Aug. 21, 1995, number of Electronic Media (now the online TV Week). "Shell group backs fees on spectrum," blared the headline on what I suppose was the front page of the tabloid.

The story, written by Doug Halonen, who now covers Washington for us, says that the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, had set up a bogus consumer group — as astroturf group, in Washington parlance — to derail the efforts to give TV stations free use of second channels so they could make a smooth transition to digital.

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Left unsaid is that CTIA wanted the TV spectrum for the burgeoning cell phone business. In 1995, cell phones were just beginning to take over America.

The then-president of the CTIA acknowledges in the article that the trade group is funding the Campaign for Broadcast Competition and makes no apology for it. "It's a cause that makes a lot of sense," he says.

That president, of course, was Tom Wheeler, who is now shaping the future of telecommunications and determining the fate of broadcasting as chairman of the FCC.

The article is disconcerting for anyone who cares about the future of broadcasting as a vital, independent medium.

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We all know that Wheeler once headed the wireless trade group (and the big cable trade group prior to that), but, still, the article is an in-your-face reminder of how deeply engaged he once was in trying to hobble broadcasting.

If Wheeler's CTIA had its way and broadcasters had been denied use of second channels, I'm not sure that broadcasting would have made the move to digital and HDTV, certainly not in the orderly fashion that it did. The transition scheme is an exemplar of public-private policymaking. It benefitted just about everybody, except maybe the wireless carriers whose appetite for spectrum knows no bounds.

People change and positions evolve, but I'm betting that deep down Wheeler still believes that broadcasters have been getting away with too much "free" spectrum for too long.

As President Obama's first appointment to head the FCC, Julius Genachowski got the ball rolling on reallocating 120 MHz of TV spectrum to wireless through the incentive auction. From the wireless perspective, Wheeler, Obama's second appointment, was the perfect choice to complete the task. He really believes that wireless carriers, his old clients, are better stewards of the natural resource.

For me, the EM article also serves as a forceful reminder that the wireless industry has been working against broadcasters for a long time.

In the great media battle royal for the hearts and minds and wallets of the American public, I have seen broadcasters' principal nemeses as newspaper publishers and cable operators; not so much the wireless carriers.

For 60 years, newspapers have battled TV stations for local advertising dollars, particularly from car dealers. Cable (and later cable-like satellite TV) has been nibbling away at the broadcasting audience for 40 years now and has managed to eat away about two-thirds of it. As the audience has shifted to cable so has a large chunk of the advertising.

To date, the threat to broadcasting from wireless has been indirect. Instead of advertising or audience, wireless has been lusting after broadcast spectrum. The latest evidence is its full-throated support for the FCC incentive auction.

But the nature of the wireless threat may be expanding into the head-to-head variety. Wireless carriers have been experimenting with a wireless "broadcasting" service — that is, a spectrum-efficient TV service that uses the cell network, but mimics the one-way, one-to-many format of broadcasting.

On Memorial Day, Verizon conducted a trial of its LTE Multicast service, broadcasting the Indy 500 to people in and around the track outfitted with specially equipped Samsung smartphones.

"Large audiences in specific locations who want to watch high-definition video can present a challenge; but with LTE Multicast, a specific channel of spectrum is assigned to this purpose, making the video experience — and ultimately the overall wireless experience of others in the same location — high quality," Verizon explains in a press release ballyhooing the test.

Verizon conducted a similar trial during the Super Bowl in February.

LTE Multicast is a long way from the market. I'm told Verizon will have to spend a lot of money to upgrade its networks before it can roll it out to a mass audience.

But Verizon, AT&T and others have a lot of money, they have the incentive and they may soon have access to great gobs of additional spectrum thanks to the Wheeler FCC and the incentive auction.

Should the technology prove out, broadcasters may soon find themselves battling wireless carriers for programming rights and ultimately mobile audience as well as for spectrum.

I've assigned out tech editor Phil Kurz to investigate LTE Multicast and see what its real prospects are. Look for his story next Thursday.


Comments (12) -

PhillyPhlash Nickname posted over 2 years ago
It is not too late for broadcasters to support an accelerated push for a backwardly-compatible upgrade of the ATSC broadcast transmission standard that makes signals robust enough for reception by mobile devices -- without disenfranchising current HDTV owners. A marketing campaign to promote local broadcasters' expanded channel lineup -- and to remind the public of the value of free, universally available broadcast TV -- also would help.
Trip Ericson posted over 2 years ago
Please explain this magical backward-compatible upgrade that only you have heard of.
Insider Nickname posted over 2 years ago
You need to ask him to remove the tin foil first.
Roger Thornhill Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Part of the Wheeler toolset for justifying taking spectrum away from broadcasters is keeping the narrative that broadcast television is an inefficient one-trick pony, a dying relic from the past (and that broadcasters are greedy scofflaws in need of containment and that any grief they're currently suffering at the hands of the FCC is well-deserved). He has shown scant interest in the innovations that a new ATSC standard will bring to broadcast television; innovations that will re-purpose spectrum and completely re-imagine what OTA TV will mean for consumers in the near future. Much easier to demonize broadcast TV as a roadblock to innovation. Funny, but LTE Multicast is not very innovative. Sending a digital video stream to multipoint destinations is something broadcasters have been doing since 2009.
Johnny Fever posted over 2 years ago
(HDTV) FREE - OTA broadcasting is an extremely efficient method of providing content - one tower and one transmitter serves an almost unlimited number of viewers/listeners with no costs after the initial hardware and antenna purchase! The hardware typically lasts 10-15 years. You could potentially reach 1 million people with one decently powered HDTV transmitter. Compare that with thousands of cellphone transmitters required, the ever-increasing monthly fees, hardware that barely lasts two years, and doesn't have a requirement to serve the public interest via cellphone! Not even an apples to apples comparison in my opinion.
Roger Thornhill Nickname posted over 2 years ago
The sad part about all of this (well, actually there are many sad parts) is that the public is totally unaware that this is happening. Not until they get fed up with ever increasing wireless bills and hunt for low cost alternatives to TV over broadband will they realize the travesty that the Obama regime has wrought on free TV. Of course, by then it will be too late.
Ron Stitt Nickname posted over 2 years ago
And of course, once broadcasters are squeezed out and "wireless" companies start broadcasting (for spectrum efficiency reasons/high demand real time video), the wireless companies will be under no regulatory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.
james chladek posted over 2 years ago
HopeUMakeit Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Cable, cell phone, and web companies are subscriber based media. None of them have a vision that includes free distribution of content. What they want is to force free broadcast TV viewers to pay them monthly subscriber fee's. That is all this is about. I caste system of entertainment distribution where all sports, and first run programmming will fall under a monthly subscriber fee and 30 year old re-runs and hooterville quality local news would available for free broadcast. That is a 3rd world set up which will wake up the American people to this BS.
Roger Thornhill Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Not only that but once this spectrum is sold you can kiss goodbye the concept of the so-called "public airwaves." Any public interest obligations that broadcasters suffer under will not apply to the wireless providers.
Johnny Fever posted over 2 years ago
How can we expect the FCC to be fair about this whole spectrum grab when the FCC Chairman had made over a million dollars pushing FREE OTA broadcasters aside at every chance in order to bring billions to cellphone companies who do NOT serve the public interest, and most certainly are not free. How about if all cell co's HAD to give 1hour of free phone service to every American every month - would they do it, or would they simply make it another of the 16% of fees tacked-on to every month bill? They won't even allow phones in the USA to have their built-in FM radio chips activated, as 'free radio' would rob the telcos of their obscenely-priced, over-priced data packages. Since when does the 'public interest' get served by the cell industry? Cell companies are the most hated companies right after oil companies as far as outrageous profits that rarely, if ever, benefit your average American.
MobileVortex Nickname posted over 2 years ago
The FM radio works on my cell phone...
Marketshare Blog Playout Blog




Overnights, adults 18-49 for September 29, 2016
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Source: Nielsen


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