During the beginning of this month, it became eminently clear to millions of Americans in the Northeast that at least one part of the future can't come soon enough.
Hurricane Sandy was the latest example of how isolating a blackout can be – not just a power blackout, but an information one as well. As power was cut to so many people, with it went the ability to get news that they needed about their situation from their most trusted source – their local broadcast television stations. Without television, people were forced to look to alternate news resources as a backup plan. However, many found that their most immediate and ever-present media connections, smartphones and tablets, had failed them as well. The FCC estimated that 25% of cell phone towers within the 10 impacted states had been compromised during the hurricane, leaving signal strength and availability unreliable for those who needed it most.
The ultimate answer lies right at our technological fingertips. It's called Mobile Digital Television, and it's currently being implemented in many markets across the country. There are 120 stations in 32 markets providing MDTV signals, and providers such as Mobile PCS are beginning to offer devices capable of picking up the signals. As time goes on, more and more devices will be added, more stations, and more markets.
But what won't be necessary are more cell towers. These signals are picked up by these devices directly from the broadcast signal. So there's no need to worry about losing the cell signal like a dropped call. And Mobile DTV has no impact upon your data plan. In essence, your mobile device will be transformed into a television set.
Let's repeat that. (Stare at it for eight seconds so you remember it.) Mobile DTV doesn't use mobile cellular service. It uses over-the-air TV signals only, formatted specifically for mobile devices – smartphones, tablets and laptops.
What's more, during events such as Hurricane Sandy, broadcasters weather the storm well. They never stopped broadcasting, even when absorbing a direct hit by a major hurricane. So viewers equipped with Mobile DTV devices won't lose their TV news lifeline.
That underscores the critical need for Mobile DTV as these events are becoming more commonplace (a result of major long-term weather effects such as El Niño, La Niña, and perhaps that global warming problem) and our growing expectation that media connectivity is indeed a necessity to survive. The service that stations bring to their community by doing their part to provide information is essential.
FEMA's Administrator Craig Fugate concurs, saying that "in times of emergency there is no more reliable source of information than that coming from local broadcasters."
Via Mobile DTV, these devices will also pick up the Mobile Emergency Alert System – a mobile application of the "Emergency Broadcasting System". This will kick in during times of local need to provide updates such as evacuation routes and other practical information over the TV airwaves.
There are many lessons that can be taken from that – not the least of them in spectrum regulation. In order to serve their communities properly, broadcasters need support from the federal government in guarding their signal bandwidth. Without these protections, the community will suffer during times of crisis when information is at a premium. It's not hyperbole to suggest that lives would be threatened without the ability to reach people with breaking news when catastrophe hits.
Mobile DTV's importance might have been demonstrated to the government in another way this week as well, and this time, it's in its own self-interest. People without access to their televisions would have a hard time following the coverage of the election returns. So even in terms of giving viewers on-the-go access to live results of the democratic process, Mobile DTV creates a bridge for its audience of citizens to witness their constitutional rights in action.
With or without dire circumstances, it's clear that Mobile DTV is more necessary than ever. While the most commonplace use of Mobile DTV will be for entertainment and everyday news, sports, and weather, it's during the darkest hours that Mobile DTV will really shine.
Broadcasters quite literally weathered the storm to make sure they served their communities. Perhaps Mobile DTV is just the latest tool that will further unite these United States.
Don Seaman joined the TVB in January 2012 as Manager of Marketing Communications, where he is responsible for promoting and raising awareness of the TVB, and of Local Broadcast Television’s value propositions within the traditional and digital media industries. Don can be reached at email@example.com.
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