Wireless Carriers: Next-Gen TV’s Big Obstacle

While work is progressing on developing ATSC 3.0, the next-gen broadcast TV standard that stations hope will let them deliver signals to all digital media devices, a roadblock looms. To get the tech included in smartphones will require the OK of the wireless carriers and while have no incentive to allow broadcasters into the phones, they have considerable incentive to keep them out.

It’s one thing to develop and adopt a new broadcast tech standard that will allow TV stations to compete against digital media in the future; it’s another to implement such a standard.

In fact, according to our story this week, the implementation of what’s known as ATSC 3.0 may be a lot tougher, given that the standard will not be compatible with any of the hundreds of millions of TV sets in use today.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee, where the standards work is now in full swing, understands the implementation challenge and has set up two different working committees to figure out how to get the industry — and a nation full of incompatible TVs — from here to there.

Those committees, our story says, are kicking around various ideas for a gradual transition that would not unduly disrupt broadcast service or force consumers to rush out immediately and buy new sets. So, that hard work in underway.

But there is one implementation hurdle that appears almost insurmountable. It gets a mention in the story, but deserves more attention.

The hurdle is getting ATSC 3.0 reception chips into smartphones.


For broadcasters, the great appeal of ATSC 3.0 is the ability to broadcast TV and perhaps lucrative new data services to smartphones. That’s what all the fuss is about, and Sinclair Broadcast Group in particular is determined to optimize the new standard for mobile reception.

But broadcast signals robust enough to reach smartphones are not of much use if the phones aren’t equipped to receive the signals.

To get chips in phones, broadcasters not only have to persuade the manufacturers, but also wireless carriers. The latter get a say — veto power, really — on what goes into the phones because they heavily subsidized their purchase by consumers.

Unfortunately, wireless carriers have no incentive to allow broadcasters into the phones and considerable incentive to keep them out.

The major wireless carriers are in the video business and they want to get in even more deeply. To them, broadcasters are unwanted competitors in the smartphone video marketplace. Free TV on phones would undermine the revenue they now receive from data plans and that they hope to receive from the introduction of LTE broadcast service.

LTE broadcast mimics conventional broadcasting. Rather than sending out an individual video stream to each user, LTE broadcast sends out a single stream to all users simultaneously. Of course, those users have to have a phone equipped with a special LTE broadcast chip set.

The carriers have been talking about LTE broadcasters for a few years now. Last May, Verizon conducted a limited trial during the Indianapolis 500 and just this week AT&T ran a similar demo during the college football championship game in Dallas.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam crowed about his “broadcasting” ambitions during his keynote at the 2013 CES. “Our goal is to break down the barriers between home and mobile once and for all and come up with new video services that can move seamlessly across any platform and any device.”

How do I know the wireless carriers will resist broadcasters’ efforts to equip phones with ATSC 3.0 chips?

Look what they’ve done to FM radio, another broadcast service that threatens their data plan revenue.

Most smartphones are equipped with FM receiver chips, but you wouldn’t know it because the chips are not enabled and they are not enabled because most wireless carriers don’t want them to be. I would presume that’s for competitive or, should I say, anticompetitive reason. If users are listening to FM on their phones, they aren’t listening to other audio and running up their date usage bills.

To get their chips into phones, TV broadcasters could sue the carriers on anticompetitive grounds or seek a government mandate of some kind, either a law or an FCC ruling. But there are no guarantees that either tactic will work.

When broadcasters began rolling out digital broadcasting in the early 2000s, they persuaded the FCC to mandate that all but the smallest sets be equipped with digital tuners. The FCC claimed the authority to do so under the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962 that required manufacturers to include UHF tuners in all TVs.

Broadcasters should be able to persuade the FCC to stretch the 1962 Act just a bit further to require ATSC 3.0 tuners in sets, but getting the agency to mandate them in smartphones would be extremely difficult.

The CEA would be no help in that effort, even though some of its largest members are active in standardizing ATSC 3.0 and have a lot to gain from its implementation. Indeed, it’s more likely to be a hindrance. Recall that CEA unsuccessfully challenged the FCC’s authority to mandate digital tuners in TV sets under the 1962 Act.

In trying to convince policymakers for a smartphone mandate of some kind, broadcasters can make the argument that public safety demands it.

The argument goes something like this: In times of crisis, when TV sets may be without power, the public will turn to their battery-powered smartphones for critical information, and broadcasters are best able to supply it.

It’s a strong argument, but radio broadcasters have been making it in their effort to be heard on smartphones and so far it’s been to no avail.

Another approach TV broadcasters could take would be the one that their radio brethren finally settled on in an effort to break the carriers’ embargo of FM on smartphones. A couple of years ago, the major radio operators agreed to pay Sprint $45 million over three years and a cut of some ancillary smartphone ad revenue to permit FM reception on the phones it subsidizes.

The radio broadcasters are hoping that the FM service on the Sprint phones proves so popular that the other carriers, notably Verizon and AT&T, will be forced to follow suit. We will see how that plays out.

The graphic we chose to go with our story on the challenges of ATSC implementation shows a silhouetted man leaping across a chasm. You can see it with the ATSC 3.0 implementation story on our home page atop the left-hand column.

It’s a good visual metaphor, although I think sometimes the chasm depicted is hardly wide enough.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here

Comments (6)

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Ellen Samrock says:

January 16, 2015 at 5:21 pm

It should be noted that activated FM chips are already in smartphones by Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG, Sharp, ZTE and Blackberry and these are supported by all the major carriers. But the “In times of emergency” argument is a compelling one for allowing broadcasters on to smartphones. During Hurricane Sandy, wireless providers hardly distinguished themselves as cell towers all over the East Coast either went down or were overloaded. FCC staffers and commissioners were running around shouting, “Tune in to your local radio and TV stations for the latest news!”, including the despicable Genachowski. The Washington D.C. earthquake was another example where cellphones failed and people were instructed to watch or listen to the news via broadcasters. Will the argument be enough to mandate ATSC 3.0 onto smartphones? Not if the greedy telcos aided and abetted by the their obedient but shedding lap dog, the CEA, has anything to say about it.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    January 16, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    Incorrect on so many levels. The chips are only activated on some models at Sprint because the Broadcasters are paying Sprint a $15M a year for the first 3 years, sharing profits from ads and gave Sprint over $100M in free advertising time they can sell to other advertisers. AGAIN, that deal is for Sprint alone – no AT&T, no Verizon, no T-Mobile, no other cellular company. And with all that, the App to make the tuner work on the Sprint Network has only been downloaded about 1,478,000 times and the CUMULATIVE amount of hours of use since it was made available are 2.3 Million Hours. This means that radio broadcasters have paid Sprint somewhere around $100 per hour of listening at this point, just to get the chip enabled for the 1.478M downloads.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    January 16, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Wrong again. The free NextRadio app is available for a wide variety of Android phones. According to the Google Play Store description, “NextRadio is now compatible with more than 30 smartphones from Sprint, Boost Mobile, and Virgin Mobile. The HTC One M8 is supported across all carriers. Look for more smartphone releases with FM support in the coming months.” Plus the Blackberry Q10, sold through ATT, has an active FM chip. Their latest OS has an FM radio app.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    January 17, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    You really proving your ignorance on this subject. Boost Mobile and Virgin are all Sprint Network phones.Furthermore, most smartphones had FM chips, but the Carrier Firmware will not enable them to work. Just because a phone is supported across all networks does not mean that the FM chip will work or is enabled by the carrier, else the early iphones with a chip would have worked under iOS years ago. It is no different than facetime working on Verizon iPhone 5’s on LTE but AT&T did not enable facetime to work on LTE until close to a year later. Based on Broadcasters PAYING Sprint to activate the chip, they will hold out for a bigger deal.

Mike Clark says:

January 16, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Harry’s point about emergency communications from broadcasters as the pathway to mobile phones is spot on. Several recent reports and studies about public safety communications document what we already know: cellular fails in public emergencies when the public — and first responders — need it most. LTE and LTE Broadcast will not solve this problem, and even if they could, it’s dangerous to rely upon a single points of failure (the cellular network) to provide life-saving information to a mobile, 21st Century America. Wisely, ATSC has included advanced emergency alerting in its capabilities. Now it’s a matter of policy strategy to open the mobile devices to broadcaster video and other data. Remember, GPS is on cellphones, and the 90-character Wireless Emergency Alerts are delivered by the carriers today because of government policy. It can be made to happen again with advanced alerting via ATSC 3.0.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    January 16, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    NAB and Radio tried it in Congress for years. It never went anywhere.