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Should the government force cell phones to carry TV tuners?

By Matthew Lasar, ArsTechnica
Some phones are fitted with add-ons to receive TV signals on-the-go.
Some phones are fitted with add-ons to receive TV signals on-the-go.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Digital TV networks don't have to worry about wireless-style congestion issues
  • Broadcasters can reach everybody during an emergency, as long as the crisis lasts
  • Many digital broadcasts depend on wireline connected translators
RELATED TOPICS

(ArsTechnica) -- So it is The Year of Our iPad 2010, and we've all got mobile phones, netbooks, laptops, desktop computers and hybrid devices like PS3s and Xboxes.

Given all our gadgets, does this mean that in the event of a tornado or terrorist attack, we've got a better emergency information communications system?

A former NBC News vice president says no, but he's got a fix for the problem:

"This homeland security communications problem can be remedied by a simple requirement from the [Federal Communications Commission] that all mobile devices include a tiny digital television receiver that would work alongside the current broadband connections," writes Tom Wolzien. "Since most mobile phones get traded in every two to three years, on average, almost every one of the 280 million mobile subscribers would have the emergency capability in a half decade or less."

OK, we know what some of you are thinking -- another self-serving suggestion from the broadcasting industry, desperate to find ways to justify itself as the broadband revolution passes it by. But this proposal is worth considering -- up to a point.

The worst risk

Wolzien isn't impressed by the public safety-enhancing potential of smartphone networks, because when the storm front hits the fan, the threat of congestion rises.

"The risk to homeland security... is apparent to anyone who has tried to use a phone -- cell or wireline -- during a large scale emergency like a hurricane or crisis like 9/11," he writes. "Because there are intentionally not enough circuits to go around, the system slows or shuts down. Mobile calls don't connect."

The "worst risk," Wolzien adds, is for mobile phone users not at home during a crisis. "There is no economic incentive for mobile phone companies to provide emergency capacity to permit all mobile phones or data connections to work at once, even if the bandwidth were available."

But digital TV networks don't have to worry about wireless-style congestion issues. Broadcasters "with solid news and engineering operations" can reach everybody during an emergency for as long as the crisis lasts. "The problem is that there are no receivers for this emergency broadcast information built into the country's 280 million mobile phones."

Are there precedents for a mobile phone TV tuner mandate? Sort of.

Back in the Cold War days, radio sets had to display emergency channels via Civil Defense marks on their dials, Wolzien notes. In the 1960s, the FCC required UHF channel access on television sets. And, of course, in anticipation of the DTV transition, the Commission required all new television receivers to include digital tuners as of March 1, 2007.

So, "as the nation considers a broadband policy, it has the opportunity to solve the challenge of simultaneous emergency communication to a fractionalized populous," the editorial concludes. "It is a need that we hope won't come, but for which we know we must be prepared."

Absolute zero

We could get picky about this idea, noting that many digital broadcasts depend on wireline connected translators and repeaters to get to their full audiences. But Wolzien brings a crucial point to the table that we've raised in other contexts.

Our nation's fast-evolving communications system should be seen as more than successive waves of neat gizmos; it should be understood as part of a "public network" that offers a baseline degree of ease, affordability, and accessibility, especially during emergencies.

Given the ferocity with which the big wireless players resist even requirements for cell phone tower backups, it's unclear to what extent we've kept that the "emergency" component of our networks in good working order. And there's no question that wireless broadband use has limits during emergencies (heck, it even has problems at trade shows).

But one of the responses to Wolzien's commentary, posted on TVNewsCheck, strongly speaks to the limits of his proposal. Do broadcasters actually do a good job in emergencies?

"Let me tell you one thing... local radio broadcasters in San Diego were of absolute ZERO worth during this quake," reader ZumaHans replied, referring to the recent tectonic turbulence in the area. "Goodness knows that the poor people in the Imperial Valley were likely totally left on their own. How much coverage did the only broadcast news operation down there (KSWT, the CBS affiliate) do? My guess is not much -- their website had nothing."

And local radio coverage is less expensive than local TV coverage, the decline of which is now so widely acknowledged that even other media lobbyists mention it in their ex parte meetings with the FCC. Time Warner Cable has spent millions to launch its locally oriented cable channels "at a time when broadcasters are shuttering local news operations and retreating from their commitment to localism," TWC's representatives recently charged, and "as the Commission is contemplating ways to bolster the effectiveness of its media ownership rules in response to broadcast stations' various efforts to combine local news operations in ways that harm the public interest."

One in three

A recent Norman Lear Center study of local TV news in Los Angeles concluded that only a very small percentage of coverage goes to emergencies and local government. In a typical half hour, LA TV stations devoted about two minutes to "local issues" and "catastrophes," the survey observed.

In contrast, the most frequent story was about crime. "One out of three broadcasts led with it," the analysis continued. "Nearly half of those were about murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, property crime, traffic crime and other common crime. A fourth of the crime leads were about celebrity crime. And nearly a fourth of the crime leads were about crimes that didn't take place in the Los Angeles media market."

Here's the irony. While this former network TV veep talks about a regulation that would cost device manufacturers and consumers millions of dollars, broadcasters get livid when the FCC starts talking about stronger localism rules.

Such localism proposals would constitute "obligations on broadcasters that are describable only as a return to government-imposed mandates on programming," a bunch of them protested several years ago. Backers of such proposals are routinely accused of trying to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, even if the issue is really about making sure the public has fast access to quality local news during a life-and-death emergency.

But government-imposed mandates on manufacturers and smartphone buyers are just fine.

Still, Wolzien's proposal is at least an interesting attempt to address the problem of emergency communications -- though it does return to an older, one-way broadcast model. It would also vastly expand the TV market for our nation's broadcasters.

We await with interest specifics on the public interest commitments they'd be willing to make in exchange for this gigantic gift from the federal government.

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