The telecom industry or the government have never really been good at keeping a deadline. Type “deadline” into the search box of TelephonyOnline.com and in most of the stories you’ll find “extension” not too far down from the opening sentence. The latest extension being discussed is the that of the digital TV transition. President-elect Barack Obama is calling for a reprieve in the Feb. 17 deadline to stop transmission on analog TV bands, clearing that spectrum for wireless operators.
There are plenty of valid reasons to do so. Millions of households don’t have the digital converter necessary to turn their analog boob tubes into digital ones, and, what’s worse, the government program designed to help consumers pay for those converters has run out of cash, putting many of those millions on a waiting list for $40 coupons they won’t be likely to see until long after the conversion date. What are these people to do? Sign up for cable?
But delaying the transition also leaves many in the wireless industry in a predicament. Until those airwaves are clear, wireless operators who won licenses in the past two 700 MHz auctionscan’t deploy their new networks, or at least can’t do so without difficulty. Some operators like AT&T probably don’t care that much since it’s in no hurry to deploy 4G networks over its 700 MHz spectrum. Qualcomm, on the other hand, has its finger on the switch, just waiting for the transition to be complete to turn on MediaFLO mobile TV networks all across the country.
Qualcomm essentially owns channel 55 of the UHF band, and those of you following the MediaFLO saga know that MediaFLO USA has spent the last two years trying to work around analog broadcasters in the band. In markets where there’s no broadcaster on channel 55 or the neighboring channels, there’s no problem, but wherever there has been a broadcaster in residence, Qualcomm has been forced to avoid interfering with their signals. The result has been a rather spotty nationwide footprint. While Qualcomm has managed to raise networks in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago it still has some fairly large holes in its coverage map, including some huge markets like Boston, Houston and San Francisco. Once the airwaves are clear though, MediaFLO’s interference problems disappear.
Earlier this week at CES, Qualcomm announced it planned to turn up another 35 markets this year, starting right after the Feb. 17 transition, expanding its footprint to cover 200 million people. The sooner Qualcomm gets a nationwide network the better. MediaFLO courts national wireless operators, national broadcasters and national advertisers, all of whom seek a national audience whom they can target with national marketing campaigns. Having a hodgepodge network won’t cut it for any of the parties involved, so if MediaFLO is to succeed it needs the DTV cut-over to take place quickly and smoothly.
Verizon Wireless is another operator that wants to move on 700 MHz sooner rather than later. The operator recently indicated it planned to move up its long-term evolution deployment plans to the end of this year, though its situation isn’t as urgent as Qualcomm’s. Even if the DTV cut-over is pushed back to the end of the year, Verizon Wireless will only be trialing in a few markets initially and it could select specific markets where there aren’t resident broadcasters on its spectrum. But if the transition is pushed into 2010, Verizon could find its nationwide roll-out severely inhibited. VZW does own a lot of spectrum, which gives it some flexibility, but LTE by definition uses some big honking channels. VZW can’t tailor the channel width and location in each market.
Let’s not forget about Cox Communications. Unlike Verizon, which essentially received a nationwide license in the lower 48, Cox targeted its license purchases on markets where it owns cable franchises with the clear goal of augmenting its wireline services with a wireless 3G network. What’s more, Cox has slated its launch for this year. If any of those markets happen to have a resident broadcaster in Cox’s spectrum, a big wrench gets tossed into Cox’s wireless plans.
Obama’s entreaties for a new deadline certainly haven’t gone unnoticed by the wireless industry. CTIA had this to say on the matter: “We are concerned that a delay of the transition date could postpone investment in and deployment of broadband wireless services and decrease confidence in the auction model for spectrum allocation that has generated billions for the U.S. Treasury. In the midst of the current economic struggle, these are important considerations.”
CTIA wants Congress to allocate more money for DTV converter box coupons immediately. What the association didn’t suggest was that Congress and the FCC allow the cut-over as planned, cutting off millions of Americans from their primary source of news and entertainment. I don’t blame him. Nobody wants to see millions of TV screens go static, but something needs to be done about clearing that spectrum.