Will Broadcasters Seize Their Mobile Moment?

During the last decade American broadcasters have come to rely on wired services, such as cable, to reach their audience. It is estimated that 85% of a broadcaster's audience is currently wired. Now, a wireless service called mobile DTV is emerging. A wireless connection to their audience is the one unique attribute that defines the broadcaster industry. But there is a dangerous mindset in the industry today that is minimizing the importance of that attribute.

A false sense of security has caused many broadcasters to build, or plan to build, less than the most powerful DTV transmission plants and to rely instead on third-party delivery systems. Such a decision may work for reaching the wired audience, but it will severely handicap such stations if they wish to participate in the coming mobile and portable business.

The mobile and portable DTV service will provide the local station's content to cellphones and other small-screen devices using a portion of the broadcaster's digital spectrum. Precise business models are still in development. However, the National Association of Broadcasters has estimated that mobile DTV could be worth over $2 billion a year by 2012.

It is not clear if this new frontier of broadcasting will be a fee-based or advertising-based service or both. What is clear is that the service will require the highest transmitting power facilities allowed to reach mobile devices, with miniature antennas of indeterminate orientation in less than optimum locations.

But today there are over 750 DTV stations that are operating, or planning on operating, at 50% or less of the maximum power permitted and, of these 750, over 300 are planning to operate at 10% or less of maximum power. Many of these stations are not limited to less than the maximum power based on interference but are choosing that route.

Stations that cannot provide a robust signal throughout their market area will be shunned by advertisers or viewers, because they will be considered too unreliable.

There are those who see a Single Frequency Network (SFN) as being a better solution than a high-power, tall-antenna transmission plant. There is probably room for both modes, but the fastest and easiest pathway to a mobile service seems to be to use the existing infrastructure implemented at the maximum permitted transmission power.

The path to a mobile/portable DTV broadcast service is having as many stations in the market transmitting a mobile service at their highest permitted power by the analog turn-off date. Failure to provide a robust mobile/portable DTV service early in the pure-DTV world will endanger the success of such a service in the future competitive wireless video environment.