Cellular Terrestrial Broadband is a new company that wants to organize LPTV broadcasters into a consortium that would digitize stations and improve their coverage so that they could offer a host of new services including wireless cable and Internet downloading.
Low-power TV broadcasters have their backs to the wall. On June 12, when high-power stations go digital, most LPTV stations will stay analog and their small market share will get even smaller.
“You’re down already to 10 or 12 percent of the audience that has over-the-air at all and you’re cutting out maybe half of those,” says Peter Tannenwald, counsel to the Community Broadcasters Association, the LPTV industry’s trade group.
Options are limited. Most LP stations don’t even have a digital channel yet. Cable systems don’t have to carry LPTVs and won’t. And it’s unlikely that viewers will trouble with analog tuners once all the full-power stations are digital only.
Nonetheless, the nation’s 2,600 or so LPTV stations do have broadcast spectrum, and a startup company named Cellular Terrestrial Broadband still believes it is a valuable resource.
With the tacit backing of the CBA, CTB wants to take that low-power spectrum, digitize it, cellularize it and make LPTV a viable force within the larger broadcasting community.
CTB is proposing a consortium of LPTV broadcasters from across the country that would convert low-power stations to digital and use them to offer a uniform slate of ad-supported and pay programming as well as advanced data services.
For a piece of the action, CTB would back the consortium with money and technology and operate the business.
The programming would include up to 30 channels of cable programming, a so-called wireless cable offering that another startup, Sezmi, is also trying with digital spectrum leased from full-power stations.
The plan is to host the aggregated low-power spectrum “on our infrastructure and together offer a range of new services … on a national footprint,” says Vern Fotheringham, CTB’s co-founder and managing director.
CTB believes it can offset the inherent disadvantage of low power — limited coverage — by using distributed transmission technology to broadcast from multiple transmitters in cellular-telephone-like arrangements.
To make a go of it, he says, CTB says it will eventually need a “significant portion” of the LPTV stations to join the effort.
“In reality … we’re not just going to go after the biggest cities first. We’re going to go after a blend of top cities, second-tier cities and some tertiary cities,” he says. “We’re trying to prove out a concept here as much as roll out a business to skim the cream.”
Fotheringham pitched the idea to CBA members at the NAB convention last month.
Reaction was positive, but non-committal.
“It seems to make sense,” says Christopher Blair, who owns LP stations in Denver and Washington. “It’s a way of delivering content down to a cellular level. Anytime an opportunity opens up for new revenue, you have to look at it, whether you’re low power or high power.”
Tannenwald says he is impressed by CTB and its co-founders, Fotheringham and Shey Hakusui.
“I’ve been involved with first-time promoters before who have grandiose ideas and they get nowhere,” says Tannenwald. “Here you have fundraisers, lawyers, businessmen and inventors and investors. There are enough people sniffing around that I think they can put something together.”
Hakusui has a long history of wireless innovation and management. As president and CEO of Harmonix Corp., he invented and produced what CTB claims is the “world’s fastest radio link at 60 GHz.” Harmonix was eventually sold to Terabeam.
Fotheringham also has a background in wireless broadband technology, including a spot as managing member of Community Broadband, a company that advises municipalities on IT and telecommunications matters.
CTB is asking each participating digital LPTV station to contribute most, but not all, of its digital capacity to the venture. Of its 19.4 megabits per second, CTB would carve out 3 mbps so that the station could continue to air a free SD service and fulfill its basic FCC requirement.
The CTB consortium would use the the remaining 16.4 mpbs of each station like this: 6 mbps for five MPEG-4 SD channels; 5.7 mbps for a multichannel “cable over wireless” service; and 4.7 mbps for “broadband IP downloading.”
The consortium would fill the five SD channels with conventional broadcast programming. “All of that would be free-to-air receivable by any existing digital device, whether it’s a digital-to-analog converter box or a digital television set or an ATSC USB dongle connected to a laptop,” says Fotheringham.
By using bandwidth-efficient IPTV modulation and multiple LP stations in each market, the subscription-supported wireless cable service — VyAire — could eventually swell to 30 or more cable networks. To receive service, subscribers would have to be equipped with a set-top receiver/decoder.
CTB would offer the broadband IP service to Internet service providers such as low-end DSL operators looking to improve downstream speeds.
With the support of some low-power broadcasters, CTB hopes to get off the ground during the fourth quarter of this year. “We will simply put single sticks in the marketplace and run different content streams on the multiple channels that are participating,” Fotheringham says.
Phase two, which could take a year or two, is when CTB turns off the big sticks and cellularizes the stations using distributed transmission.
“Our back-of-the-envelope metric is one transmitter per ZIP code,” says Fotheringham. “Like any cellular system, we get the benefit of frequency re-use.”
The cellular approach and its improved coverage will permit phase three: mobile DTV using the same ATSC mobile/handheld standard that the full-power stations are planning to use.
Cellularizing has another benefit, says Fotheringham. “We also get the beauty of location-based services where we can do very localized targeted advertising at the neighborhood level.”
CTB is going after low-power stations because “they’re the guys who’ve not yet converted to digital and have the greatest need for financial support to do that,” Fotheringham says.
“Once the high-power guys start to realize the utility of the cellular architecture, I think there’s every reason to believe that they’d want to participate as well,” he says.
Fotheringham says that CTB has access to capital, but would not elaborate beyond hinting that some sources are off shore. “We’re not a broadcaster in the traditional sense and we don’t face limitations on foreign capital.”
Technically, the cellular idea seems to work, according to Greg Herman, president of WatchTV, a Portland, Ore., LPTV operator who doubles as CBA’s vice president of technology. CTB ran tests of the cellular system using his stations.
“This cellularized approach takes all the best things of a distributed transmission system and adds to it the ability to more effectively re-use the bandwidth in each cell, not to mention that it is backward-compatible with all existing aspects of ATSC as we understand it,” Herman says. “A low-power station covering a population of half a million people could have an infinitely superior signal.”
CTB is a good resort, if not a last resort, Tannenwald says. “You have a low-power TV industry that’s not at all prosperous and some of them are desperate; you have a government that has broadband stars in its eyes and can’t even see around the word to see if it has any significant meaning; and you have entrepreneurs who see these spectrum opportunities,” he says.
“Why not try it?”