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Editorial: A Plan for Mobile

Last week, broadcasters and electronics manufacturers set aside their spectrum-allocation differences long enough to chat about a shared future in mobile digital TV. The meeting of the minds, which took place at the Newseum in Washington, marked the launch earlier this month of the Open Mobile Video Coalition’s D.C. market test of mobile DTV. Through the test, D.C.-area stations and select cable channels are being delivered to several hundred consumers armed with mobile devices that include built-in DTV receiver chips.

At presstime, there was still no deal with a cellular carrier to offer the service alongside the broadband video options increasingly populating those devices. But Sprint is participating in the D.C. test via its Samsung phone, and the buzz at last week’s event was that a distributor deal could be weeks away. National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith told B&C he would not be surprised if that deal were announced during the four-month Washington test. Jack Abernethy, head of the Fox stations and a big backer of mobile DTV, said that it could be a business in two to five years, and would have to be if it were going to be a business at all.

Broadcasters have been doing their part, launching the OMVC in 2006 when naysayers were saying nay to the service’s potential, or the ability of broadcasters and consumer electronics firms to stay on the same page. And more recently, they formed the joint venture to develop a national service.

But the keys to broadcasting’s mobile future will be getting chips in handsets—and signing up distribution partners—ASAP. For the Sprints and AT&Ts of the world to invest in making their services and devices DTV-ready, they will have to see the business plan in action. That’s what the Washington test is all about, to deliver data on how and where and when the service will be used.

The “where” is vital. Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro and NAB’s Smith have butted heads over how valuable broadcast spectrum is for broadcasters vs. broadband users. But they agreed last week that mobility is key if broadcasters are to stake what Smith said was broadcasters’ rightful claim alongside phone companies as providers of wireless video content.

While one broadcast-group strategist suggested that other distribution technologies had taken years to get off the ground, the window for new platforms has narrowed as the pace of technological change has increased exponentially. Or let’s put it another way: If you don’t build it quickly enough, they won’t come, because they will have already gone somewhere else. Broadcasters need to move quickly to turn their field of dreams into reality.