Emergent technologies, residual protocols (part four of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”)

The following post is part four of my essay-in-progress From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and “the Future of Television.” For part one, as well as an introduction to this project, click here. For part two, which lays out the essay’s theoretical and historical contexts, click here. For part three, which looks at the circumstances surrounding the American broadcasting industry’s involvement with mobile television, click here.

Emergent technologies, residual protocols

During the 2000s broadcasters and mobile communications companies each identified mobile television as key to their respective industries futures. At least initially, agendas shaped by distinctive institutional cultures, industrial legacies, and technological considerations led these two groups to pursue diverging mobile television solutions. The multimedia ambitions of the mobile communications industry and the survival tactics of free-to-air television broadcasters would however over time place these two industries on a collision course. By the end of the decade, broadcasters and mobile companies’ preferred methods of delivering television programming to mobile devices shared a number of attributes in common. Though these methods continued to employ incompatible transmission and reception technologies, the user experiences they offered both owed much to the protocols of free-to-air broadcast television.

The basis for this distinction between mobile television’s technologies and protocols is Lisa Gitelman’s (2006, p. 7) proposal that the term medium be understood as encompassing both technological instruments and the “vast clutter of normative rules and default conditions[] which gather and adhere like a nebulous array around” them. As defined by Gitelman “protocol” is a flexible category encompassing a medium’s uses, business models, the forms its content or messages take, the standards and regulations governing its implementation, and even ideas about its cultural meanings. Though protocols have a tendency to sediment and become inertial, beneath the encrustations of common sense that surround them they remain sensitive and dynamic. Protocols may change in response to technological developments, as when the introduction of a new technology prompts the reappraisal and revision of a medium’s extant regulations. But they may likewise be influenced by a much wider range of “changeable social, economic, and material relationships” (p. 8), including the institutional practices of remediation described above. In its efforts to reform its own identity or reputation, a broadcaster, a mobile network operator, or any other institution may remediate the protocols of other media and other institutions. Protocols are in this respect intermedial, and register the shifting dynamics of power and status that play out in the interactions relationships between media institutions.

The mobile television solutions explored by mobile communications companies illustrate the complex and unpredictable ways that media institutions remediate one another’s protocols. For as greatly as mobile technologies have changed since American mobile network operators first began carrying television programming over their networks, mobile television’s protocols have undergone equally dramatic transformations. The protocols that have so far taken shape around mobile television are schizophrenic and unstable, and remediate practices, forms, regulatory frameworks, and social and financial arrangements associated with broadcast and cable television, mobile telephony, and personal computers and the Internet.

2003 was the year of the debut of the first of the services that used mobile networks to deliver television-like video content to Americans’ mobile phones. That year, Sprint and AT&T Wireless began loading a selection of their top-of-the-line phones with software that allowed customers to access a rotating selection of about 100 on-demand video clips, many of which were sourced from broadcast television networks. Provenance notwithstanding, RealOne Mobile’s video clips resembled Internet slide shows more than they did television. Due to the limited processing power of handsets and the bandwidth constraints of existing mobile networks, clips ran at between one and four frames-per-second (as opposed to television’s thirty frames per second). Even then, similar to Internet video sites RealOne Mobile’s streams were prone to frequent buffering, pixellation, and losses of synchronization between their audio and video tracks.

If the poor picture quality of RealOne Mobile’s television clips evoked the Internet, so too did many of the other protocols that coalesced around this and other mobile multimedia services in this period. RealOne Mobile was a mobile version of RealNetworks’ RealOne GoldPass, a subscription-based multimedia service that delivered a similar selection of short television clips, as well as streaming music, radio stations, and movie trailers, via the Internet to personal computers. As RealOne Mobile was joined in the fledgling mobile television market by Verizon V Cast, ESPN Mobile, Amp’d Mobile, and Cingular Video, many of these services adopted the monthly subscription fees, clip-based content libraries, and on-demand delivery methods of Internet multimedia services. Institutional protocols were passed between Internet and mobile multimedia ventures as well – for instance, mobile television preserved the convention of third-party companies serving as aggregators of other distributors’ programming. In the case of RealOne Mobile, for example, RealNetworks acted as an intermediary between via two very different types of distribution networks, licensing content from television networks, and then subsequently processing and packaging that content for re-distribution mobile networks.[i]

The protocols that RealOne Mobile and other fledgling mobile television aggregation services inherited (or appropriated) from their Internet counterparts hybridized with the normative rules and default conditions of the United States mobile communications industry. Until recently, the United States’ major mobile companies ran their networks as “walled gardens,” placing restrictions upon the hardware their subscribers could use and the software applications and content they were permitted to access. The cornerstone of the walled garden was the subsidized handset: to entice prospective customers to enter into these “enclosures,” operators offered deep discounts on mobile phones. These discounts came with two major conditions: first, customers were required to commit to contract of a specified duration (typically twenty-four months); and, second, network operators modified these subsidized phones so that they worked only on their networks. Early mobile television services adhered to this convention. Network operators made available a selection of subsidized multimedia handsets loaded with software that allowed them to receive television clips and other forms of multimedia content, but only from aggregators with whom operators had standing compacts. These restrictions allowed network operators to manage their subscribers use of multimedia services, for instance by blocking access to the Internet and its bandwidth-intensive free video sites. They also meant that all transactions between mobile television viewers and aggregators were conducted within networks’ walled gardens, putting network operators in positions to negotiate arrangements in which they would be paid by both parties.

What kinds of programming could subscribers watch after signing up for one of these “walled garden” services? Much of the video content available on mobile phones during this period was repurposed from broadcast and cable television. Apart from one service that delivered a selection of twelve streaming television channels with fixed schedules, most mobile multimedia packages were dominated by short television clips presented on an on-demand basis. The most common sources for these clips were heavily-segment television formats, including news, late night talk shows, sketch comedy series, sports highlights, and entertainment reports (Dawson, 2011). For instance, Verizon V Cast debuted in 2005 with a programming lineup that included brief highlights from The Daily Show, Entertainment Tonight, and ESPN’s Sportscenter. Go TV presented condensed “CliffsNotes versions” of weekly episodes of ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Alias, while Sprint Vue featured clips culled from a selection of current and classic CBS programs, including CSI and I Love Lucy. Though there was a great deal of talk in this period about creating short-form programming geared specifically to the small screens and limited processing power of mobile handsets, original content – that is, content not recycled from television – remained scant (Dawson, 2007). Rare exceptions included made-for-mobile spinoffs of popular primetime television series: for example, Verizon licensed a series of minute-long “mobisodes” based on the FOX drama 24 for its V Cast service, while Cingular Video included a premium HBO “channel” featuring an exclusive Entourage miniseries.

Though most of the programming available from these services was sourced directly from broadcast and basic cable television networks, or else based on popular television franchises, the most direct influence on this programing’s presentation remained the protocols of early Internet multimedia services. By 2005, however, these protocols were themselves being overhauled, with the subscription-based models pioneered in the late-1990s by aggregators such as RealNetworks giving way to the “web 2.0” model exemplified by YouTube. In contrast to aggregators like RealOne GoldPass, which sourced their programming directly from television networks, record labels, and movie studios, YouTube operated a free video hosting service that initially relied exclusively on site visitors (and creative applications of “safe harbor” copyright exemptions) for its content. Within a rather short period of time YouTube was joined in the web video marketplace by a number of startups that combined free hosting services with social networking platforms. Like YouTube, these sites were free, device- and platform-agnostic, and encouraged user participation via uploading, tagging, commenting, embedding, and sharing features.

The explosive growth of YouTube and its competitors inspired an avalanche of press coverage, with some contemporary commentators identifying these sites were a harbinger of an entertainment “snacking” trend that would transform how popular media was made, distributed, and consumed (Miller, 2007). Mobile network operators were eager to capitalize on this trend, and in advertisements and other publicity materials positioned the mobile phone as the ideal “snacking” platform. They also pursued partnerships with video hosting websites: In 2006 Verizon Wireless signed a deal with YouTube granting it exclusive rights to distribute clips from the site via its V Cast multimedia service. But in keeping with the mobile industry’s “walled garden” business model, Verizon only made a curated selection of YouTube’s clips available to its subscribers. Though Verizon Wireless and other mobile network operators dabbled in the snack marketplace, most stopped well short of allowing their subscribers to venture outside of their “walled gardens” to graze at the Internet’s all-you-can-eat video buffet. Ultimately, mobile network operators were reluctant to embrace the changes Internet video’s protocols underwent during this period, in part because the “openness” these protocols aspired to was so incongruous with the concept of the “walled garden.”

As YouTube’s web 2.0 model achieved hegemonic status online, mobile network operators found new templates for the protocols of their mobile television services in “old” media. From 2007 onward, mobile network operators began phasing out clip-based mobile television services’ on-demand protocols in favor of protocols that more closely resembled those of free-to-air broadcast television. On-demand services transmitted separate signals to each individual viewer over mobile networks using a method known as “unicasting.” By contrast, the second wave of mobile television technologies employed a “multicasting” distribution model to simultaneously transmit a selection of between eight and fourteen pre-programmed linear channels that, depending on the network, might include NBC, Fox News, Adult Swim, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel. Though the daily schedules these services multicasted were adjusted to reflect mobile television’s peak viewing times – the morning and afternoon rush hours – the programming lineups they offered were for the most part identical to those airing on broadcast and cable television.

Technical dilemmas posed by clip-based mobile television were a major motivating factor behind the development of multicasting technologies. For although mobile television services’ subscriber numbers remained well beneath telecommunications analysts sunny projections, it soon became apparent that 3G networks were not up to the task of delivering television programming to large audiences on a unicast basis. Within two years of the launch of unicast mobile television, analysts were warning that even a modest bump in viewing could overwhelm the nation’s mobile networks (Reardon, 2005). The troubles experienced by the South Korean mobile network operator SK Telecom provided a preview of what might be in store if these projections panned out. In 2002 SK Telecom had been amongst the first mobile network operators in the world to offer a mobile television service. But within a year of the service’s launch, the stress that it placed on SK Telecom’s 3G network had grown so great that the carrier was required to build a special multicasting network just to handle its mobile television traffic.

The mobile television bandwidth crunch forecast by telecommunications analysts never materialized. In fact, in the United States demand for mobile multimedia services lagged far behind analysts projections, and many services launched between 2003 and 2007 struggled to attract viewers. In 2007, the year of MediaFLO’s launch, the clip-based unicasters Mobile ESPN and Amd’d Mobile both suspended their operations due to inadequate subscriber numbers. Still, the prospect that mobile television would sometime in the future overload operators’ 3G networks continued to exert a powerful influence over their long-term strategies. American mobile network operators explored a number of potential multicasting solutions in this period before the nation’s two largest networks, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility, settled on Qualcomm’s MediaFLO. Mobile companies also began acquiring additional spectrum as it became available. Between 2003 and 2008, Qualcomm spent $683 million to acquire UHF spectrum for MediaFlo and other unspecified future mobile services. In 2007, AT&T purchased a nearby band of frequencies for $2.5 billion, prompting rumors that it would launch its own competing mobile multicasting service in the UHF band. The following year, AT&T spent an additional $6.64 billion, and Verizon $9.63 billion, to purchase additional UHF channels that had been cleared by the DTV conversion. Even these acquisitions, however, did not satisfy mobile network operators’ hunger for spectrum. Citing forecasts that demand for mobile television and other data-intensive multimedia services would eventually rise, the mobile communications industry lobby, the CTIA, warned policymakers and the general public that the United States was on the cusp of a spectrum “crisis” that would cripple mobile networks and derail the nation’s economy. To avert this crisis, the CTIA petitioned the FCC to free up at least 800 MHz of spectrum for use by mobile companies, preferably from the frequencies allocated to television.

In making the case for the transfer of additional spectrum from broadcasters to mobile network operators, the CTIA repeatedly returned to arguments about the cultural and economic obsolescence of the local stations that were this spectrum’s incumbent occupants. Together with allies that included the consumer electronics industry lobby, the CTIA sponsored a massive public relations campaign in the second half of the 2000s to portray broadcasting as an undesirable use of the nation’s radio spectrum. The mobile industry lobby aligned itself with proponents of radical spectrum reform in making the case that broadcasting was a medium without a future, and moreover that it constituted a roadblock on the nation’s path to technological and economic progress. By continuing to grant broadcasters free licenses to use that spectrum as they pleased, the United States placed itself at risk of falling behind other countries in terms of its development and adoption of innovative wireless technologies. The CTIA claimed on mobile network operators’ behalves the local broadcasting stations’ traditional mantle as “trustees of the public interest,” linking the expansion of wireless networks to larger national priorities. The reallocation of spectrum from television to wireless telecommunications would help balance the federal budget, reestablish the United States’ global leadership in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors, and extend access to broadband Internet to underserved populations and regions.

The tone of the CTIA’s campaign for spectrum reform cut a sharp contrast to the advertising campaigns that the organization’s members conducted during this period. For at the very same time that the mobile industry lobby portrayed broadcasting as irrelevant and broadcasters as expendable, mobile network operators promoted Qualcomm’s multicasting service as a faithful facsimile of broadcasting. Then again, despite their incongruous tones, mobile network operators’ determined efforts to establish multicasting’s identity with broadcasting were otherwise consonant with the mobile industry lobby’s claims on broadcast television’s status and spectrum. Mobile television’s promotional materials endorsed broadcasting’s protocols, but only within the context of touting the mobile industry’s ability to remediate them. In effect, they invited American consumers to imagine a future in which something akin to broadcasting would survive, but broadcasters would most certainly not.


[i] In addition to RealNetworks, other aggregators that began operating mobile television services in this period included the startups Go TV and MobiTV.

Continue on to part five: “Real TV, now on your phone”

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

2 Responses to Emergent technologies, residual protocols (part four of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”)

  1. Pingback: “Real TV, now on your phone” (part five of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  2. Pingback: Conclusion: Vapor to vapor (part six of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

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