End of Satellite title cardAs I walked the exhibit floors of the NAB Show this week, I asked dozens of people the same question: Is IP-based TV delivery shrinking the satellite TV market? Or will it soon? Except for a few satellite folks who ventured that it’ll probably shrink it one of these days, everyone agreed that it has, and that IP is hitting satellite even faster than had been expected.

One case in point is PBS, which announced in late March that it was in the process of switching to IP file-based delivery for its non-real-time programming. And then there’s the demonstration project from the folks at Ryerson University that you can transmit live 1080p, 30 fps HD video from New Zealand to Toronto … as long as you have internet2-quality, university-grade fat data pipes. In what must be an understatement, the Ryerson professors told me, “The television networks are very interested in this.”

The reason for the change is money. Satellites are very, very expensive. It costs millions to launch one, and if it makes it successfully into the right orbit, it’ll only last for an average of a decade or so. During that time, the only way to recoup those millions is to rent slices of transponder time, and that’s why it costs so much to use satellites to distribute programming. Anything IP-based is bound to save distributors a lot of money, as long as it works.

There are several markets for transponder time. One is for program originators such as PBS to distribute to their broadcasters. Another is for companies who send their signals to homes with dishes. (Yet another is for beaming news stories back to stations. I saw a lot of nascent IP-based alternatives promoted at the show, so that’s changing too.)

At the Akamai booth, I was chatting with Pete Condon, a senior service line manager, and I said that the unexpected speed of adoption of over-the-top TV to homes reminded me of the switch from vinyl records to CDs. Pete said this switch would go even faster. “This time,” he said, “everyone already has the player.” It took years for the CD infrastructure to become ubiquitous, but most households already have the internet.

But most is not all. Some folks don’t have any internet access at home, and even more don’t have broadband, and that’s one of the caveats here. In areas such as South America where there is little broadband penetration in homes, satellite remains an attractive option. It’s also still the best way to distribute live programming, such as sports and news, so satellite distribution probably won’t go away completely for a long time. But for now, watch as fewer signals are beamed up to the sky and more are relayed through the cloud.

NAB Public Service bannerHere at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, the hottest topic is the FCC’s desire to take away some TV channel space and convert it to wireless internet spectrum. That would be good for a future of ubiquitous internet access, but not so good for the bumped stations and their viewers.

In defending their position, various NAB spokesmen bring up the same arguments. Broadcasters serve their local audiences in times of emergency. They provide local weather, news, and community support in a way no national network or web service can.

There’s nothing wrong with those points, but I’m surprised that I never hear the most compelling reason to keep OTA stations on the air: They serve people who can’t afford to pay for TV.

Imagine a working mom just barely scraping by. You want her kids to have educational programming to help them succeed in school. You want her to be able to relax when she has an hour off to watch something entertaining and diverting. You don’t want to make her pay $50/month for basic cable or satellite TV.

I wonder why no one at the NAB talks about this great public service to the needy. Could it be that some people believe that anyone without enough cash doesn’t deserve TV? There must be some reason, but I just don’t know what it is.

In my next post tomorrow evening, I’ll talk about the Big Question of the future of satellite TV. See you then.

Texas Bluebonnet

The Texas bluebonnets were blooming near Rocket Park on the NASA campus.

I’m back from a visit to Houston, where I used to live a stone’s throw from the NASA campus. Except now, with heightened security, they’ll probably track you down if you try to throw stones at NASA.

So there I was, in a third-floor hotel room about 30 miles from downtown Houston, and just for fun, I hauled out my little USB stick ATSC tuner. I plugged in my 3-inch rabbit ears, stuck that next to a window, fired up my netbook, and scanned. I came up with 62 digital channels. That’s twice as many channels as I could watch in my first cable TV subscription! (I’m pretty sure it’s also more channels than I paid for when I lived there.)

And what a variety! In addition to the major networks and Spanish-language stations, there were several independents with RTV-style reruns., ABC News Now, and even CCTV News.

Free TV via satellite is really cool, but remember that free TV with an over-the-air antenna is really easy. If you haven’t already, scan the digital airwaves where you live and see how many extra channels you can find. Leave a comment to let us know how many you’ve got.

* At Time-Warner Cable, the director of digital communications coined a great phrase: “Television is melting.” You can read his entire blog post here, but the basic idea is that folks who watch video on screens other than their TVs still want to watch the content that they’ve paid for. Video delivery is morphing, and TWC’s streaming (in-home) app wants to be a part of that.

* But I read a much better summation of the state of things on Diane Mermigas’s blog at Business Insider. She points out that the big media companies know as well as anyone that the delivery systems are shifting, yet they want to maintain their profits from the status quo. “The growing rift between content providers and mainstream distributors … is beginning to resemble an existential play.” Go read it!

OMVC logoThe Open Mobile Video Coalition has been, well, coalescing over the past three years or so. Its goal sounds pretty good; the OMVC wants to use another platform to spread free TV. But unless it can bag partnerships with some major cell phone manufacturers, this is going to be another solution in search of a problem.

Let’s back up to the beginning. The changeover from analog to digital over-the-air TV killed the signals to millions of old portable analog TVs. The new digital channels work beautifully with HD sets, but a small screen doesn’t really need all those extra pixels. And apparently it’s difficult for a digital TV to maintain its picture if the TV is moving, as in the back seat of a car.

Enter the OMVC, which agreed on a particular type of digital subchannel designed for a particular type of receiver. Mobile viewers will be able to tune in to any of these “mobile TV” channels in their market if they use one of these new mobile TV receivers.

Now let me tick off some of the problems with this plan.

  • Will there be enough mobile TV channels to make viewers want to buy a receiver? I sympathize with the OMVC, which has a chicken-egg problem. They’re trying to get enough stations in enough markets to broadcast enough mobile TV channels that electronics manufacturers will feel good about creating more mobile TV receivers. And the OMVC needs to have some mobile TV receivers available so enough stations will want to devote some broadcast bandwidth to mobile TV. But will this reach critical mass in enough markets to reward the broadcasters and manufacturers?
  • Will these channels be free? As the OMVC tries to get as many stations as it can under its tent, it’s stayed kind of fuzzy about subscription channels. Clearly, some stations want to broadcast some kind of pay TV, hopefully as a supplement to some free channels. OMVC just chose Neustar as its “Mobile DTV Trust Authority”, or DRM system, so pay-TV channels are a definite possibility. I thought that the failure of Flo TV showed that there aren’t many consumers who are ready to buy a mobile TV device and pay for a subscription to watch it.
  • Who’s going to watch? The prototypical mobile TV viewer is a commuter on a train. Otherwise, hmm. You can’t watch while you’re driving to work. If you’re home, you can get a better picture on your regular set. If you’re sitting at work, or sitting in a stadium, or if the power goes out, you can watch from a regular, battery-powered portable digital TV. So how many train commuters are there? Will the signal reach down into subways?

The only way mobile TV will catch on is if it’s free (or mostly free) and it’s already in your pocket. Later this year, there’s supposed to be a mobile TV device that works with iPhones, and I’ve seen mobile TV USB dongles for netbooks and laptops, but that still requires making customers go out and buy and carry around some extra thingie just to watch mobile TV. On the other hand, if your Android phone or iPhone 5 already had a mobile TV chip built in and the antenna was your earbuds, that would make a nice feature. You might find yourself watching local news while you waited in a checkout line. But that’s only if you didn’t have to buy or do anything extra to the phone you were probably going to get anyway.

The OMVC will be exhibiting at the NAB Show again this year, (free exhibits pass still available here) and it promises to show off a prototype mobile phone equipped with mobile TV. If that works, and if the OMVC can get installed on enough phones, then it has a chance. Unless all that works out, mobile TV is going to be just another failed branch on the tree of technology.