The Price Point | Will 5G Leapfrog ATSC 3.0?
It was less than a decade ago that with much fanfare television stations launched Mobile DTV. Mobile DTV was one of the great promises of digital television, offering full program streams live on a hand-held device. By 2012 around U.S. 120 stations were offering the free service. Then something happened. Mobile DTV slowly … went … away. It had been killed by 4G.
OTA mobile died because consumers chose something they liked much better: 4G enabled smartphones offering video on demand, two-way video and other services. Phone carriers were reluctant to add receiver chips for a competing service on their smartphones, so a consumer’s only choice was to carry a separate device. OTA mobile never had a chance.
In spite of enthusiasm for their proprietary product, broadcasters had also been keeping a foot in both camps. When mobile DTV went on life support, stations quickly pivoted to the smartphone. There is an important lesson here. No matter what our plans, only technology chosen by the consumer will survive, which brings us to the promises of ATSC 3.0.
There is no question 3.0 will be a great quality advance for television stations. The picture alone makes the upgrade a must have, but it too will be challenged by a wireless competitor: 5G. To understand just how bold that challenger will be, we must first understand that 5G is not simply a faster version of 4G.
A good way to think of 5G is massive data at massive speed. The long-promised super digital highway. 5G will empower two-way 3.0 services, but it will also function as a direct competitor, offering far more services than 3.0 alone is capable of.
Among other things, 5G is an important step toward solving one of the foremost consumer complaints, that technology is too complex and daunting to use. 5G’s speed and bandwidth will allow systems to function in the background in homes, cars, the workplace and anywhere else people go. Everything from truly smart homes, to interconnected cars easing traffic congestion, will happen without consumer input.
All of this means two things to broadcasters. First, our over-the-air advantage inherent in 3.0 will be reduced because the consumer will not necessarily know or care how video is brought into the home. Second, without need of handheld remotes, consumers will not necessarily go to a channel. They will simply say what they want: “Show me Sunday Night Football.”
What is likely to happen to television stations in a fully built-out 5G world? Broadcasters with strong brands will have the opportunity adapt to new technology, adding new local services and new local business lines. Every promise of ATSC 3.0 will theoretically also be available to broadcasters using just 5G. But they will not be alone. 5G will lower the cost of entry for new local competitors. Who will excel and who will fade away in a much more crowded world? That is a question consumers will decide. They will do so based on their perception of brand value.
Brand is not an advertising slogan. It is an expression of the consumer’s core relationship with a television station. That’s why strong brands — meaning those with great consumer trust — will grow, even as weak brands are marginalized. Which brands will the consumer choose? That is the opportunity — and the risk.
Fortunately for broadcasters the 5G construction timeline is a long one, meaning 3.0 has the early advantage, even without the planned two-way communication of 5G, but who knows how long that advantage will last?
The 3.0 transmission system may be on track, but much more needs to be done. Manufacturers cannot offer sets until all standards are locked in. The traditional route of network programming first, local news coverage last, does not work in this case. Stations need to move much more quickly to fully convert local product. They must also expand local services now, while they still control the price of entry.
5G will bring many opportunities, both for television stations and new players, but it will also bring the shakeout of weaker stations one step closer.
This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.