Wireless Becoming TV's Newest Nemesis
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.
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.
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.