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.
Wireless Carriers: Next-Gen TV’s Big Obstacle
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.