Dennis Haarsager's rolling environmental scan for electronic media. "Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us." --Jerry Garcia "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." --Bob Seger
No sooner did I get done posting on this topic earlier this morning, but I found that consultant Mark Ramsey made an excellent closely-related post on his on blog yesterday. Great minds think alike? ;-) See Everything you need to know about FM radio chips in mobile phones at Mark Ramsey Media. He covers more ground than the title implies. Good reading. --Dennis
Steve Yasko, GM of WTMD in Towson, MD (Baltimore area) recently brought up this subject on two public radio lists which I would really categorize as scalability of listening by means other than an analog radio. Here’s my take on this and, as usual in things relating to public radio, comments here are my own, not NPR’s (see About).
Content is like water. Water flows through big channels nicely but also through smaller channels and cracks whenever it has a chance. Continuing the analogy, the effect of those smaller flows over time often makes the smaller openings larger. Radio content is flowing nicely through the broadcast channels we have – they scale very well, but it’s also beginning to emerge through other openings as well. And, just as well-drillers often fractionate bedrock to create more cracks for water to be released, new products for distributing media content are being developed constantly.
With some regularity, I listen to Pandora over my iPhone on my car’s sound system and to Northwest Public Radio’s folk music program while riding my tractor Saturday afternoons in Virginia. Some people to whom I (and others) mention this think, “Well, that’s cool,” and try it themselves, thereby testing a little more the limits of the wireless IP channels that were originally set up for voice calls. It should probably be like not telling your friends about that great little restaurant you found. Already, I can’t reliably do this inside the Washington beltway at most times of day, and it’s a non-starter during rush hour along major roads. Wireless providers are reaching the limits of available spectrum in major markets so are abandoning their “all-you-can-eat” plans (I’m grandfathered – heh, heh), at least for now. The reason mobile streaming is working at all during favorable hours or favorable locations is that so few people – other than us in the radio cognoscenti – are doing it.
But don’t take too much comfort from today’s limitations. They won’t last. The iPhone and iPad are garnering a well-deserved share of attention, but Android devices are now outselling iPhones and an avalanche of cheap Android tablets will almost surely do the same to the iPad in the autumn (WebOS, Windows Phone 7 and Linux tablets in there, too). There will be a lot of mobile media devices out there very soon. 4G systems are being rolled out by all major carriers and reclaiming spectrum from television and government users has a head of steam. The cracks through which content trickles now will enlarge to small channels and the small channels will become larger ones. Do we really want to bring out the Bondo and duct tape or do we want people to find us many places?
Broadcasters even have a (possibly interim) role in mitigating the current spectrum problems. Flo TV is providing white label television streaming services to Sprint and AT&T cell phones using broadcast-style transmission over spectrum that used to belong to UHF TV (seamless to the cell phone user). In radio, the NAB is advocating putting mandatory FM chips in cell phones while a credible research company report says that digital radio will benefit from the spectrum crunch by mid-2011 when carriers use it to mitigate IP audio traffic problems in smartphones. If we’re smart, broadcasters will use the time we have to develop hybrid IP/broadcast radios and/or RadioDNS-enabled radio receivers – not to mention find ways to make it easier for people to find us on their many IP devices.
It’s all about scale. We’ll see lots of strategies to manage it. Right now it’s pricing and the beginnings of non-IP delivery for media content. Soon it will be more IP packets delivered to your devices, and you can be sure that will impact pricing as well – likely in the more for your dollar direction. Carriers have a lot of knobs they can twist, so don’t judge today’s situation in pricing or capacity as significant for much longer than an eye blink in media time.
Update 11:15 Eastern: Coincidentally, consultant Mark Ramsey makes many of the same points plus others in an excellent new (somewhat mistitled) post on his blog. Link: Mark Ramsey Media.
The FCC’s OBI issued a paper in June called Spectrum Analysis: Options for Broadcast Spectrum, OBI Technical Paper No. 3 [3.5 mb pdf]. The agency has a goal of recouping 120 MHz of spectrum (20 TV channels).
BroadcastEngineering has thus far printed two articles of analysis by Phil Kurz in what will be a multipart series analyzing the report.
In a related Congressional development, Sen. Jay Rockefeller has introduced a bill authorizing voluntary incentive auctions of TV spectrum, and last month Rep. Rick Boucher and Rep. Cliff Stearns introduced a similar bill in the House. Link: BroadcastEngineering. --Dennis
I’m reposting the following by my NPR colleague, David Julian Gray. It was originally posted on an internal blog, Technically Speaking. About a month ago, I reposted another essay of his on RadioDNS. --Dennis
At a technology presentation last year, which was sadly more interesting than the Major League ballgame used to lure me there, a vendor's Sr. VP asked what I thought of "cloud computing." I dismissively answered "You might as well ask me what I think of air! -- 'Cloud Computing' is just a convenient marketing term for remote applications and storage accessible over the Internet -- technologies which have been evolving for decades..." But this was too flip, I thought the trend toward so-called "cloud computing" so obvious I missed the forest for the trees -- or the clouds for the air ...
As it happens, I've been thinking a lot about "AIR" -- or better "The AIR" -- as broadcasters think about it -- that is, the Electromagnetic Spectrum or at least that part of it known as the "Radio Spectrum". I'm also thinking a lot about "The CLOUD" -- as the FCC appears to be thinking about it -- that is, the Radio Spectrum. "The AIR" is getting very cloudy these days -- as is the difference between the conglomeration of technologies, techniques, services and resources once known as "The Internet" and those once known as "broadcasting." As Vint Cerf, true daddy of the Internet and now Chief Evangelist for Google, is fond of saying: "IP on everything."
In my last entry in this space, I wrote about RadioDNS as a possible, I think ideal, bridging technology between traditional terrestrial broadcasting and mobile broadband platforms. To briefly recap, RadioDNS propose a collection of technologies to leverage the existing data already included in both standard analog and HD-Radio broadcasts to link to other services and content already and/or potentially provided by broadcasters to a variety WEB and mobile devices. In other words it merges "the broadcast cloud" with "the IP cloud".
As far as the FCC is concerned -- this cannot happen fast enough, but their approach is to annex "the broadcast cloud" and hand it over to those providing IP based services. That's what the conversion to digital TV was all about -- reminds me of old Hollywood's take on the Railroad's great land grab of the mid to late 19th Century -- you know the push to drive farmers off the land to make room for modern commerce. This is the great Radio Spectrum grab of the early 2010's, the push to drive broadcasters off the spectrum to make room for "Mobile Broadband"...puts an ominous spin on the exhortation to "Rule the Air."
But it needn't be ominous at all -- there are models of how providing information and content via an integrated set of radio spectrum based services blur any distinction between "broadcast" and "broadband". I'll get flip again and say it's a specious distinction after all. That seems clear to NBC and Comcast -- who have been trying to elope. One successful model we can point to of an integrated "broadcast/IP cloud" is in service to the Public Broadcasting community: the PRSS Content Depot.
"Radio Towers" aren't going away in five years or any time soon-- even if, or when, the FM band is yanked by some government agency and auctioned off to LTE or WiMAX providers -- for where will those LTE or WiMAX, etc. signals be coming from? "The Cloud" is just an expression ...
-djg (David Julian Gray, IS Sr Product Manager, Content Production
There is necessarily a lot of interest in the future of internet radio, especially of the mobile kind, within the radio broadcasting community, public and commercial. I say necessarily because of the potential it has to, at a minimum, disrupt the current economics of broadcasters and, at the ultimate, to replace big tower radio with radio delivered by internet protocol (IP). We want to know: is internet radio irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s coinage or is it something real?
There’s certainly exuberance about internet radio, some of it irrational, but I believe that it will have a real impact on broadcast economics. I concluded the post linked in the next paragraph with this:
… To be consequential to us, these services have to only skim the cream off our listening to harm the thinning margins that most stations are experiencing. …
I’m always interested in analyzing the mechanics of change. What technical and economic hurdles does a new technology have to overcome to be disruptive? Toward that end, I was interested in the issue of how to scale up radio listening in a wireless IP environment. In a previous post on this subject, Does radio need to worry about IP-delivered audio?, I looked at the very real technology issues relating to scaling up IP bandwidth for traffic loads comparable to current radio listening and posited some developments that could mitigate that.
So I’d like this time to consider economic hurdles, specifically the trend toward tiered data pricing. There’s a wide range of actual use among smartphone data users (¼ actually use no data, while the top 6% use ½ of all data). Streaming users are more likely to be heavy users, so in tiered pricing, they’re likely to pay more because their subsidy by light users goes away.
In a paper analyzing the telecommunications market over the next five years, IBM Global Business Services says that as IP-based high-speed mobile data standards such as LTE and WiMAX spread more broadly throughout the world, carriers will give up trying to stop over-the-top providers such as Skype from riding over their pipes and will eventually "enter into formal partnerships" with them. But because the carriers will be losing the revenue they once generated through minute-based cellular plans, they will have to make up for it by eliminating their all-you-can-eat data plans. ¶ "If people value connectivity then they must pay for connectivity," says Ekow Nelson, the global leader for the communications sector at the IBM Institute for Business Value. "With all-you-can-eat models there's going to be no way for carriers to compete. This will be an adjustment because most users have been conditioned to enjoy unlimited access to over-the-top services for free."
There will be some carriers that buck the tiered pricing trend, but IBM’s analysis seems pretty solid to me, especially since in this country it’s being lead by LTE rather than WiMAX companies (the former seems destined to dominate 4G). It’s likely that pricing for both light and heavy users will decline with time, but tiered pricing won’t help adoption of mobile streaming in the near term. Until that general price decline happens, tiered pricing will be a hurdle.
Happily for me, I’m grandfathered into AT&T’s all-you-can-eat 3G data plan, so I can continue to enjoy Pandora in my car from a double-tethered iPhone (audio and power) during low or moderate data use hours. It’s already largely replaced real radio for music listening late evenings and weekends. But it’s a long, long way from replacing traditional radio stations for my news, traffic and weather needs. --Dennis
FLO TV uses the old upper UHF TV band to provide primarily off-cable programming to customers through its own devices and through Verizon and AT&T smartphones. I noted here last month that it’s CEO said it hadn’t found the audience they’d hoped for, and now Michael Grotticelli is reporting in Broadcast Engineering that they’re now saying Qualcomm is open to selling the company.
Matthew Lasar, writing for ars technica, discusses three ways that spectrum now allocated to UHF television could be made available for wireless broadband per FCC goals [bold added]:
… The first possible method would be a "two step auction." In phase one of this system, individual broadcasters would announce the minimum auction price at which they'd be willing to relinquish their license to the FCC. The agency would then conduct "a repacking analysis" of the spectrum and the cost of "clearing" for transfer to a wireless company. ¶ The next possibility would be an "exchange," in which groups of broadcasters would offer up their spectrum together and bidders offer prices on them simultaneously. ¶ Congress would need to authorize either of these means to the spectrum transfer end. … ¶ The last prospect would be to create a license sharing or "overlay" regimen. We'll let the FCC explain this one:
Under this alternative, the FCC would divide the broadcast TV bands into large, contiguous blocks and auction all or a portion of those blocks as overlay licenses with flexible use. Overlay licensees would have co-primary rights with DTV stations. They would have primary rights in any part of the license area that is not served by DTV licensees, but would have to protect any DTV broadcast stations in their service area.
The overlay license holders could negotiate directly with broadcast TV stations to clear the spectrum either by discontinuing OTA signals or by relocating to another block. One overlay license holder could pay another overlay license holder to accept the relocated station or pay a broadcast TV station to share its bandwidth with that relocated station.
I commute on weekends to the farm about 55 miles west of Washington, DC and have tried Pandora a few times with my iPhone plugged into my Jeep’s sound system. During rush hour, it’s hard to even complete a phone call on this route (the iPhone’s carrier is AT&T 3G), so of course streaming Pandora is spotty, too. But tonight, when I drove back from there to my condo in Falls Church, I was able to listen to my “Bonnie Raitt station” all the way from Hillsboro with no drops at all. It was flawless. The difference, of course, is that I left Hillsboro at 10:00 p.m.
It worked so well because contention for the network was low then. If there were as many 3G streams going on at that time as even a low-rated Washington radio station has listeners at that time of night, you can bet it would have brought the wireless system to its knees. We’re a long way from being able to scale listening over smart phones and dashboard IP devices. Consumers will want to do that, so it’s also a safe bet that the appetite for spectrum will continue unabated. --Dennis