OMVC Weighs In On Spectrum Debate

Touts mobile DTV's role in broadband plan

Members of the Open Mobile Video Coalition on Thursday cited the advantages of new mobile digital TV transmission technology over broadband pipes for delivering video to millions of smartphones and other portable devices. They also applauded the Federal Communications Commission for mentioning the potential of mobile DTV and its point-to-multipoint architecture in the "National Broadband Plan" that the Commission released on Monday, a report that also advocates reclaiming over a third of broadcasters' current spectrum for wireless broadband applications.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition, which represents nearly 900 stations today, has been driving much of mobile DTV's development since 2007, working hand-in-hand with technology vendors and the U.S. digital TV standards body, the Advanced Television Systems Committee. OMVC members have created a system that would allow stations to broadcast mobile DTV streams alongside their existing high-definition and standard-definition services within their 6 megahertz DTV channels.

But now that a formal mobile DTV standard is in place, receiver devices are about to hit retail and stations are starting to launch mobile DTV services, the spectrum that mobile DTV relies on has come under pressure from Washington.

OMVC members, including OMVC president and ION Media CEO Brandon Burgess and Fisher Communications president and CEO Colleen Brown, put on a brave face in a conference call with reporters Thursday. They focused on the business opportunities inherent in mobile DTV and described FCC plans to reclaim spectrum, which still need Congressional approval, as speculative. And both Burgess and Brown said that even if some spectrum was taken away, they would still be able to launch mobile DTV in addition to existing HD and SD services.

Burgess said that he couldn't speak for what various OMVC members might do if the government approached them with an offer to buy back part of their spectrum, a possibility the FCC mentioned in its report. But he said that mobile DTV continues to gain momentum, with Spanish-language broadcasters Univision and Entravision recently joining the OMVC.

"If people have alternative plans for their spectrum, I'm certainly not seeing it," said Burgess. "I certainly have not been asked by my board to stop doing what I'm doing."

Burgess said that mobile DTV broadcasts represented the "ideal method for reaching millions of viewers at one time, without bogging down the Internet or cellular towers with video transmissions." He said he was pleased that mobile DTV was acknowledged by the FCC, and added that he believes that "mobile DTV has to be part of the broadband plan for it to work."

For her part, Brown described successful trials of mobile DTV in Seattle, where Fisher has been broadcasting mobile DTV for the past five months and testing with various equipment vendors.

"As public policy makers begin the policy debate over the FCC's broadband plan, I think it's critical that broadcasters maintain their share of spectrum to allow new services like mobile DTV," said Brown.

Researcher Danielle Levitas of IDC shared her findings from an OMVC-sponsored report on mobile DTV's potential. She noted that while high-speed wireless broadband transmission technologies like Wi-Max and LTE (Long-Term Evolution) are coming, the country's 3G infrastructure is still being built out.

She predicted that 3G will remain the dominant wireless broadband technology for some time, which creates a bigger opportunity for mobile DTV to serve new devices like netbooks. Levitas said that 45 stations are currently broadcasting mobile DTV and predicted 150 would be operational by year-end.

Some of those existing stations are in Washington, where the OMVC is currently testing mobile DTV devices with "friends and family" and will begin rolling out 200 mobile-DTV capable handsets to Sprint subscribers in early May.

When asked if they would be willing to replace existing high-definition broadcasts with standard-definition programming in order to save bandwidth for mobile DTV, both Burgess and Brown said that they wouldn't. Both said their stations had achieved viewership gains from launching HDTV fare.

"Not doing HDTV in some form is not going to be part of the core plan," said Burgess.

While broadcasters could theoretically provide HD services to pay-TV subscribers by sending them over fiber links to cable and satellite operators, Brown said that idea was prohibitively expensive, as most stations feed headends with over-the-air signals today. Moreover, she said that it was imperative for broadcasters to provide HD quality for free over-the-air.

"I would be very disappointed to see broadcasters relegated across the country to substandard services," she said.