Mobile TV and the Wireless Spectrum Tug of War

In the midst of a dispute with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over control of the airwaves, a group of broadcast companies announced a joint venture to develop a national mobile content service — that is, “mobile TV.”

Including television broadcasting heavyweights such as NBC and Fox, the group will allow member companies to provide mobile devices with content including live and on-demand video, local and national news from print and electronic sources, and sports and entertainment programming.

The broadcast spectrum will come from the three consortium member companies that already own and operate stations — Fox; NBC and Telemundo; and ION — along with nine local broadcast groups that have stations currently broadcasting over spectrum licensed to them: Belo, Cox, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Hearst, Media General, Meredith, Post Newsweek and Raycom.

How Many and How Much?

The newly formed group says that it will have the capacity to deliver mobile video and print content to nearly 150 million U.S. residents at the outset. The service will use open broadcast transmission protocol ATSC-M/H developed by the Advanced Television Systems Commission (ATSC) specifically for mobile devices.

Exactly which devices is a detail not to be overlooked, however, according to Josh Martin, senior analyst for wireless media services with Strategy Analytics.

“One big question,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “is how many devices will come with this type of technology embedded initially? And what will be the cost for the service? If the answers are not ‘all’ and ‘free,’ then this type of service would be unlikely to be successful.”

Help or Hindrance?

Interestingly, the broadcast group announcement comes on the heels of the FCC’s unveiling of its National Broadband Plan about a month ago. While the courts and Congress will have to hash through exactly how much authority the FCC has over broadband in the U.S., the agency already has raised the issue of bandwidth availability in a variety of arenas.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a speech at a recent New America Foundation event that “[w]ithout sufficient spectrum, we will starve mobile broadband of the nourishment it needs to thrive as a platform for innovation.”

None of this is lost on television broadcasters, of course, who, until recently, have enjoyed relatively unfettered access to broadcast spectrum. This is while Internet service providers and mobile network companies complain that the huge upswing in use of the Internet to provide bandwidth-hogging video — from sites such as YouTube, Hulu, and even broadcast companies themselves, such as ESPN — has clogged the infrastructure.

In addition, media industry consolidation has meant that content creators are increasingly also content providers, and owning broadcast spectrum also puts them at the helm of the distribution channel.

Large companies that include movie studios among their holdings, for example, may soon be in charge of content all the way from its creation to consumers’ homes, Claire Simmers, chair and professor of management and international business at St. Joseph’s University, told the E-Commerce Times.

That’s not necessarily a help to the consumer agenda of getting the widest selection of content at the best possible price, Simmers noted.

Use It or Lose It

In fact, it’s reasonable to speculate that the broadcast group, which will call itself “Pearl Mobile DTV,” is operating under the “use it or lose it” philosophy, noted Martin.

That is, beleaguered by both consumer and government complaints that it is sitting on bandwidth needed much more urgently by the wireless industry, broadcast television companies are flailing for ways to remain relevant in a media world increasingly running on a personalized schedule model rather than an undifferentiated broadcast one.

To be fair, the newly formed group plans to provide both live and on-demand video, which suggests that there will be some sort of mechanism to allow customers to time-shift programming by selecting from available archived content.

The group did not respond to requests for clarification on these points in time for this story.

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