Google and Whitespace Radios

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Last week Google received approval to operate a public TV whitespace database. They are the third company after Telcordia and Spectrum Bridge to get this designation. The database is available at http://www.google.org/spectrum/whitespace/channel/index.html and is available to the public. With this database you can see the whitespace channels that are available in any given market in the country.

The Google announcement stems from a FCC order in April, 2012 in FCC Docket 12-36A1 which is attached. This docket established the rules under which carriers can use whitespace spectrum. Having an authorized public spectrum database is the first step for a company to operate in the spectrum.

You may have seen recent press releases that talk about how Google proposes to use tethered blimps to operate in the whitespace spectrum. They are calling this system ‘SkyNet’, a name that sends a few shiver up the spine of movie buffs, but the blimps are an interesting concept in that they will be able to illuminate a large area with affordable wireless spectrum. By having their database approved, Google is now able to test and deploy the SkyNet blimps.

The whitespace spectrum operates in the traditional television bands and consists of a series of 6‑megahertz channels that correspond to TV channels 2 through 51, in four bands of frequencies in the VHF and UHF regions of 54-72 MHz, 76-88 MHz, 174-216 MHz, and 470-698 MHz. Whitespace radio devices that will work in the spectrum are referred to in the FCC order as TVBD devices.

For a fixed radio deployment, meaning a radio always sitting at a home or business, a TVBD radio must be able to check back to the whitespace database daily to makes sure what spectrum it is allowed to use at any given location. Mobile TVBD radios have to check back more or less constantly. It is important for a radio to be able to check with the database because there are licensed uses available in these spectrums and a whitespace operator needs to always give up space to a licensed use of the spectrum as it arises.

This means that TVBD radios must be intelligent in that they need to be able to change the spectrum they are using according to where they are deployed. Whitespace radios are also a challenge from the perspective of radio engineering in that they must be able to somehow bond multiple paths from various available, yet widely separated channels in order to create a coherent bandwidth path for a given customer.

There are whitespace radios on the market today, but my research shows that they are still not particularly affordable for commercial deployment. But this is a fairly new radio market and this is part of the normal evolution one sees after new spectrum rules hit the market. Various vendors generally develop first generation devices that work in the spectrum, but the long-term success of any given spectrum generally depends upon having at least one vendor that finds a way to mass produce radios so that they can reduce the unit costs. There are some spectacular failures in several spectrums that have been released in the last few decades, such as MMDS, that failed due to never having reached the acceptance level of producing affordable devices.

But one might hope that Google will find the way to produce enough radios to make them affordable for the mass market. And then maybe we will finally get an inkling of Google’s long-term plans. There has been a lot of speculation about Google’s long term plans as an ISP due to their foray into gigabit fiber networks in places like Kansas City and Austin. And now, with SkyNet we see them making another deployment as an ISP in rural markets. If Google produces proprietary TVBD radios that they only use for themselves then one has to start believing that Google has plans to deploy broadband in many markets as an ISP as it sees opportunities. But if they make TVBD radios available to anybody who wants to deploy them, then we will all go back to scratching our heads and wondering what they are really up to.

I have a lot of clients who will be interested in whitespace radios if they become affordable (and if they happen to operate in one of the markets where there is enough whitespace channels available). Like others I will keep watching this developing market to see if there is any opportunity to make a business plan out of the new spectrum opportunity.

Local Programming

digital on-demand

digital on-demand (Photo credit: Will Lion)

One way to differentiate your cable system from your competition is to develop local programming. Local programming is just what you imagine it to be. It includes such things as high school sports, little league games, local church services, local government meetings, high school plays, and if you have a local college a wide array of things. And it can include more with content like local news, courts, cooking shows, tourist information, etc.

Why should you get involved with local programming? If local programming is done well, meaning that it has content that people want to watch, then it differentiates your cable programming from the competition and entices people to buy your service rather than the other guy. And of course, if customers buy your cable they are more likely to buy your higher margin products like data and telephone.

The ability to produce local programming has gotten much easier in recent years due to the cost of cameras dropping significantly. I remember in the not-too-distant past helping local service providers get grants to buy video cameras for local organizations that cost more than $15,000 each. Today, studio quality cameras are handheld and cost a fraction of that old cost.

One of the first hurdles you must cross with local programming is figuring out how to get the content listed in the channel guide with everything else. Many, but not all channel guides allow you to insert your own custom programs.

A number of cable systems carry local programming of some sort, so let me talk about how various companies have gotten local programming onto their cable systems.

Create a Local Network. There is always the expensive way to do things, which is to create a traditional local channel on your cable system. This means you would have some sort of studio and you would produce a lot of content to run 24/7. Some companies have done this and think it is successful. Some of the larger cable companies such as Cox have local channels, but there are also smaller companies doing this like Hiawatha Broadband in Winona, Minnesota and several large telephone cooperatives in the West. But the cost of producing content is expensive and very few companies feel they can afford this option. To be successful, it must be done well.

Let Others Create the Content. There is a less expensive option which is to let other create the content for you. There are a number of systems that have given a channel to local government, to local churches or to universities. Sometimes these organizations to a great job and sometimes they don’t. Most viewers don’t hold local programming to the same standards as network TV, but shows must have good sound and decent video if they are to attract viewers. One of the most successful local programs I have ever seen was a company that carried a local court and it seems the DUIs get good ratings. Many communities have done well broadcasting local high school sports.

Video-on-demand. Another way to carry local programming is not to create a channel, but instead to create a library of local content. If your system is capable of video on demand then you can create a library of local content. This way you can not only cover little league or high school sports, but a subscriber can pull up the game where their son hit a home run from last summer to show grandma when she visits.

There are other uses of having this kind of VOD library. For instance, you can create a rotating set of content from the library to show in hotels to tell visitors about area attractions. You could do something like the City of Seattle has done and create an index of past government meetings so that somebody can pull up a specific meeting where a specific topic was discussed. You can also pull the best of the VOD content and create a channel where the content plays continuously. But to do this well you need to always refresh the content.

Web TV channels. Finally there is the newest way to create a channel. There are now some vendors who have made it easy to let you put any web content directly onto your cable system. They let you take any web programming and create a virtual channel. They let you create as many local channels as you like and to put the content into a channel lineup.

This really opens up the world of local content for a service provider. It takes a lot of electronics and eats up system bandwidth to create multiple traditional local channels. But using a web-to-TV interface you can carry almost unlimited channels in one channel slot on your network. Each customer can then just watch what they want out of the lineup because they are getting the content from the web and not broadcast as a ‘channel’ from the hub.

This means that you can give a ‘channel’ to every organization in town that wants one, be that high schools, colleges, churches, governments, non-profits, local businesses, etc. Some of them will do a good job at creating local content and others will not, but the best of them ought to create a great local line-up that your competition won’t have.

This technology also lets you bring in any other content from the web. You can add OTT content like NetFlix and Amazon Prime. You can make channels out of YouTube. Or you can add one of the web services that have already tied this kind of web programming together nicely.

So you can create channels that bring together local content plus the best of the web. One idea that I have mentioned before is to create a package of local programming, OTT web programming and network channels. Such a package could sell for $20 and be more profitable than your larger cable packages. You can also insert local advertising into local programming or sign up with somebody like aioTV who will insert national advertising and share the revenue with you.