Broadcasters, Wireless Carriers Enter Battle Over Spectrum

Wireless devices are the new frontier, and everyone wants a piece of them

Last Updated: March 10, 2010 @ 6:07 PM

Why should you care about the TV spectrum? In short, because the battle that’s brewing over it will impact TV, broadband and mobile.

First, some history: U.S. broadcasters moved to high-definition TV, following a 15-year development of the standard. HDTV took more spectrum than standard-definition TV — which the broadcasters already had — but allowed viewers to get HDTV or the stations to “multicast” or split the bigger signal into several stations, serving greater audiences.

In the past year, 800 U.S. broadcasters formed the Open Mobile Video Coalition to come up with a way of using some of that existing spectrum to split off some of their on-air signal and broadcast it to mobile devices.

Within a year, they came up with and approved a standard for mobile broadcast, the ATSC-MH (the ATSC part stands for Advanced TV Systems Committee, and the MH for mobile handheld).

In January, seven stations began their over-the-air broadcasts to mobile.

At CES 2010, LG and Samsung, among others, showed mobile phones and devices embedded with ATSC-MH chips.

An estimated 100 TV stations are expected to be broadcasting to mobile by the end of 2010 (so says the ATSC).

Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Americans do not have broadband Internet access. President Obama has made it a priority to extend broadband access to areas of the nation left behind in the digital revolution. To that end, the FCC got the ball rolling in September by inviting comments on the adequacy of available spectrum for broadband deployment.

That was the perfect opening for the wireless industry, whose efforts to be the conduit of ever more data and content are hobbled by the lack of spectrum.

The wireless networks just aren’t robust enough to enable the kind of data-heavy usage that’s been happening since the introduction of the iPhone and other smartphones.

With the penetration of smartphones expected to grow exponentially in the next few years, the wireless industry needs more spectrum. And they want it from the broadcasters.

The argument from the wireless industry is that most people watch TV over cable or satellite, making over-the-air a decreasingly important means of TV watching. The Consumer Electronics Association has sided with the wireless industry.

The broadcasters are circling the wagons, saying the wireless industry needs to get its own spectrum house in order. They, and the National Association of Broadcasters, point out that they just spent billions transitioning to digital television.

The next deadline is March 17, when FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski must present Congress with a National Broadband Plan.

According to Washington, D.C., attorney Jim Burger of Dow Lohnes, “The wireless industry has urged the FCC to identify 800 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband. Where is it going to come from?” he asks. “Broadcast? Satellite? FCC Chairman Genachowski acknowledges there are challenges.”

Burger also noted the “official” meaning of the National Broadband Plan is unknown. The FCC commissioners may not vote on the plan, and a “spectrum inventory” bill from Congress may come later this year.

U.S. broadcasters aren’t waiting for decisions from the FCC and Congress to move ahead with their plan to broadcast mobile content over-the-air. At a gathering of the network’s top technology executives held at the HPA Tech Retreat, they all affirmed their mobile activities. More information on the broadcasters’ move to mobile is available here.

Bob Seidel, CBS’ vice president of engineering and technology, described the iPhone app to watch CBS news, which just won the Global Mobile Award for Best Mobile TV Service. Over the crucial issue of analytics for mobile content, CBS also announced a deal with Rentrak to begin gathering metrics for mobile usage. “But you have to authenticate the audience or you don’t have a business,” Seidel cautioned.

NBC Universal’s Thomas Bause stated that NBC intends to bring its content to all possible screens, including mobile. “Mobile broadcasting utilizes existing investment in TV station infrastructure, with a low incremental cost to add,” he said. “It’s a new service for public and new revenue for broadcasters.”

And Jerry Butler, director of Interconnection Projects at PBS reported being “very active” in mobile DTV.

Some pundits believe that in the struggle for dominance, broadcasters are the weak link. At the HPA Tech Retreat, one attendee questioned — only semi-jokingly — if the broadcasters will even be around in five years. Yes, said the broadcasters, but we expect to fight for spectrum every day from here on out.

Debra Kaufman is the editor and founder of MobilizedTV , an online newsletter that covers content on mobile devices. She has covered the entertainment industry for over 20 years, writing about new media, entertainment technology and other topics for the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Film & Video and many others. Her work has also been published in Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and American Cinematographer.