April 7, 2010

National Broadband Plan: When Opportunity Knocks, Is Anybody Home?

“Genachowski to TV: Take It Or Leave It” blared the headline in TVNewsCheck, a leading industry publication. Referring to the FCC’s recent National Broadband Plan proposal to pay broadcasters to reallocate 120 MHz of broadcasting’s 300 MHz allotment for wireless broadband, the article observed, “broadcasters remain determined to hang on to every last hertz of spectrum, a position that puts them on a collision course with [FCC Chairman] Genachowski.”

Juxtapose this shootout attitude with the observation of industry analysts at Stifel-Nicholas: “whether broadcasters are big winners or losers in the spectrum drama depends on whether they have a credible plan to monetize their excess spectrum capacity.”

In other words, while some in the industry see the FCC’s proposal to solve the broadband spectrum crisis as a threat, it could also be an opportunity. While the FCC plan’s “incentive auction” provides a way for TV stations that are in or hovering near bankruptcy to receive cash for their spectrum, it also opens the door to even greater opportunity for broadcast licensees.

The FCC has given broadcasters the chance to cast aside the old days of analog-think and join the digital revolution – if the industry will seize the opportunity.

Broadcasters who strike out at the National Broadband Plan are looking a gift horse in the mouth. The FCC’s expressed desire to get more productivity out of the broadcast spectrum has created an opportunity for local broadcasters to become relevant in the digital future. Imagine if instead of threatening a High Noon gunfight, the industry turned to the regulators and said, “Yes, we can be a part of the broadband solution, but here’s what we need from you.”

The mobile data future is video-driven. According to a recent report by Cisco, the demand for mobile capacity will double every year for the next five years; and video is driving the biggest increases in that demand. By 2014 Cisco predicts two-thirds of mobile data capacity will be consumed by video. Two-thirds of that consumption will be done on laptops, netbooks and iPad-like devices, not smartphones.

Mobile’s current unicast architecture is an inefficient means of delivering bandwidth-hogging video. One-to-one delivery works for phone calls and one-off requests for content, but it is sub-optimal for March Madness or even weather reports where many people want the same content simultaneously. Broadcasting’s one-to-many architecture is simply the most efficient means of delivering the commonly used content that makes up the fat part of the long tail.

While video may drive bandwidth demands, broadcasting is also the most efficient means of powering the next generation of wirelessly delivered apps such as newspapers, eBooks and digital signage. The Kindle and iPad are wonderful devices, but the one-by-one continual reiteration of identical content is a very inefficient way to deliver the New York Times, text book updates, or digital advertising. The economics of such new mobile-delivered services requires the efficiency of feed-once, then deliver-to-all, rather than the serial one-at-a-time delivery of the current mobile infrastructure.

Interestingly, the broadcasters have just such a digital mobile bandwidth tool in the new Mobile DTV standard now being trialed in Washington. The question is whether the industry will grab the opportunity it presents to reposition themselves to be players in the digital future. [Disclosure: Core Capital has an investment in Roundbox, the company providing the datacasting technology for mDTV]. If broadcasters respond to the digital spectrum debate the same way they responded to cable TV 30 years ago, with opposition and cries of the end of the world, then they will experience the same result: progress will go forward without them. The digital broadband opportunity is a rare second chance for broadcasters to define their future relevancy. Embrace it and be a player in the digital future; fight change and watch opportunity subside.

For almost 70 years broadcasters have behaved as the “owners” of a block of spectrum that did one thing: deliver a single channel of video. The advent of DTV changed the reality of the broadcast asset, however. Broadcasting is no longer a unitary service business. The 6 MHz broadcast allocation that used to be filled with a single channel is now 19.4 Mbps of digital throughput that can be filled with that same standard definition signal (utilizing about 3 Mbps) while leaving the vast majority of its capacity for other digital applications. Broadcasters aren’t television purveyors anymore; they are digital pathways, some of whose content happens to be video.

This leads to how the National Broadband Plan is an opportunity for broadcasters willing to leave analog thinking behind and enter the digital age. In order to get sufficient broadband throughput there is a need to aggregate multiple 16 to 17 Mbps packages of post-standard definition throughput as well as assemble a national footprint. Here’s the opportunity for the broadcasters to turn to the FCC and say, “OK, we’ll deliver for you the most efficient broadcast broadband delivery possible; but you have to change analog-era ownership and technical regulations that stand in the way of that future.”

The most profound and powerful 10 words in the entire 360 pages of the National Broadband Plan appear early in the document: “Like the Internet itself, the plan will always be changing.” Those words are an invitation for broadcasters to make the case they are the “new developments in technologies and markets” the report foresaw, and that as a result the FCC should be willing to think about a digital era regulatory philosophy.

But threatening a shootout at the OK Corral in order to “hang on to every last hertz of spectrum” is an invitation to irrelevance and proof that the spectrum needs to be assigned to parties that think digitally and see themselves as a part of the solution to the spectrum crisis. Opportunity is knocking for the broadcasters; we’ll see if anyone is at home.