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New Mobile Video Service Gets Cool Reception

Broadcasters are concerned that MediaFLO, a new mobile video service being launched by Qualcomm later this year, will cause significant interference to their analog and digital television (DTV) broadcasts. MediaFLO is scheduled to debut in the fourth quarter, with a nationwide footprint.

Qualcomm petitioned the Federal Communications Commission in January 2005 to expedite MediaFLO's launch by allowing the service to meet the same standard that broadcasters have used to measure interference between two stations in a market. It also asked the FCC to provide for a streamlined processing procedure that would give stations 14 days to respond to MediaFLO's filing plans to launch in a market.

But broadcasters and trade groups, including Pappas, Cox, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), have opposed that petition. They say the signal interference of MediaFLO, which will use a proprietary transmission system to broadcast from multiple transmitters in a market, can't be measured by existing engineering models.

Moreover, stations operating on adjacent channels to Ch. 55 (such as 54 and 56), say the subscription MediaFLO service could impact viewers of free over-the-air television and damage their existing businesses until Feb. 17, 2009, when analog broadcasts are supposed to cease—and perhaps much longer if the industry misses that deadline.

“This could potentially affect millions of people around the country,” says Peter Pappas, executive VP of Pappas Telecasting. “This is not something the Commission ought to be doing lightly.”

Qualcomm counters that, since the majority of viewers are served by cable or satellite, only a small subset that relies on over-the-air service in certain markets will be affected, while MediaFLO could potentially reach over 170 million Americans who own mobile phones. The company has repeatedly urged the FCC to quickly rule on its petition to avoid delaying MediaFLO's launch. So far, the FCC has yet to do so, though a source confirmed that the Commission is “carefully evaluating” it.

A Problem of Policy

New wireless services like MediaFLO are what the FCC had in mind when it narrowed broadcasters' span of channels as part of the move to DTV, freeing up UHF spectrum to be auctioned to private users like Qualcomm or allocated to public-safety agencies. Channels 52-69 have been designated as “out-of-core” spectrum, and broadcasters who operate in that space will have to relocate between Channels 2 and 51 before the scheduled end of analog broadcasts in 2009.

Some broadcasters have already received permission from the FCC to “flash-cut” from analog to digital broadcasts. One of those stations, WLNY New York, actually moved to free up Ch. 55 for the MediaFLO service and was compensated an undisclosed amount by Qualcomm as a result. But switching channels is a complicated process, and many stations on Channels 54, 55 and 56 expect to stay there for the next few years. They are worried about interference from MediaFLO, which aims to use an OFDM Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing-based modulation scheme to broadcast from multiple transmitter locations within a market—something that has never been tested in the U.S.

Qualcomm's petition asked the FCC for a declaratory ruling that would allow MediaFLO to cause up to 2% interference to an incumbent broadcaster's signal, using the same transmission model adopted by the FCC in Office of Engineering and Technology Bulletin 69 (OET-69) to measure interference between stations for the purposes of DTV planning. Qualcomm suggested that, if interference exceeded that level, it could compensate broadcasters for the additional impairment.

“There is no model that has been invented specifically to calculate MediaFLO-to-TV interference, so what we did in fashioning our petition was to look to the model that is most appropriate,” says Dean Brenner, Qualcomm VP of Government Affairs, who believes that the MediaFLO signal is very similar to a DTV signal.

But broadcasters say OET-69 is the wrong model for gauging MediaFLO's interference. “It didn't really anticipate having, say, five transmitters on the same channel when calculating interference in a particular place,” says Lynn Claudy, NAB senior VP of science and technology.

CBS is worried about interference to WCBS New York, which operates on Ch. 56. “We don't understand where the transmitters will be, how powerful they will be, and how much interference they will cause,” says Bob Seidel, VP of Advanced Technology, CBS.

When the FCC laid out the channel plans for DTV, Seidel notes, the idea was that adjacent channels would broadcast from the same tower location. But putting multiple transmitters in a market, some potentially at the edge of the traditional broadcast contour, throws the existing model on its head, he believes, and could make it hard for a DTV receiver to pick up existing broadcast signals on adjacent channels.

Part of the problem: There is no legal definition of how good a DTV receiver has to be. “There is nothing to say it will reject this signal,” Seidel says.

MediaFLO has talked with CBS but so far has only provided general technical information, says Seidel. MediaFLO has also discussed the possibility of CBS stations providing content to its video service; one of MediaFLO's goals is to provide subscribers with both national and local programming.

300,000+ Angry Viewers?

CBS isn't alone in its concern. Pappas is anxious about MediaFLO's impact on its Spanish-language station KAZA, which broadcasts the Azteca America network in the Los Angeles market on analog Ch. 54. In comments filed with the FCC, Pappas says that about 45% of the 1.7 million Hispanic households in Los Angeles subscribe to cable and estimates that 310,000 viewers who rely on over-the-air reception of KAZA could be negatively impacted.

Pappas says that if the FCC were to accept Qualcomm's position, it would both hurt Hispanic over-the-air viewers and strike a significant blow to KAZA's bottom line. “To do something like blow out a few hundred thousand prospective viewers would impact diversity in a market,” says Pappas. “If somebody is not with you for X number of years, they may not rediscover you when you suddenly reappear in 2009, or perhaps 2011, as Ch. 47 in the digital environment.”

Pappas says that Qualcomm has informally indicated that MediaFLO's interference to KAZA might be around 3%. But, like other broadcasters, he's concerned about a lack of detailed technical information from Qualcomm and fears it could be much higher. “Are they going to put in three transmitters, or are they going to put in five? Will they be on Mount Wilson in Los Angeles [a common broadcasting site], in central L.A., or on the outskirts of L.A.?” Pappas asks. “You need to know the variables in order to know what the interference is.”

Tribune, which operates analog station WLVI Boston on Channel 56, is warily awaiting its new neighbor as well. Tribune is negotiating with MediaFLO over compensation should the wireless service exceed the 2% interference level.

Chief Technology Officer Ira Goldstone says one of the main problems broadcasters have with MediaFLO is that “no one's familiar” with its OFDM-based transmission system. He is worried that the MediaFLO transmissions could impair a DTV receiver's ability to reject multipath interference, resulting in reception problems.

“Earlier receiver chips were more susceptible to RF [radio frequency] overload, while the later chips have more dynamic range,” says Goldstone.

MediaFLO interference is just one of the myriad of technical issues confronting broadcasters as they move toward the February 2009 deadline, all the while trying to compete against online and mobile video offerings. An FCC ruling in favor of MediaFLO's petition simply doesn't make sense, insists MSTV President David Donovan, considering the pressure “out-of-core” broadcasters already face.

“Stations are trying to build a DTV service now and then transfer over [to] in-core,” says Donovan. “The Commission says that digital stations have to power up to meet 100% of their market. So why authorize a service that shaves off 2%?”