The Biggest Losers: Delayed DTV Edition

When President-elect Barack Obama asked Congress to delay the transition that will force broadcasters to switch from analog TV signals to digital ones last week, we noted that the move could cause trouble for companies planning to use the newly available spectrum for new technologies. I’ve reached out to most of the affected companies, as well as some industry experts, to determine what it would really mean. It’s also important to note that as of now the law mandates a change on Feb. 17, and until that law is changed, a delay is all talk with no action.

Qualcomm (s QCOM): The CDMA powerhouse has its transmitters in place, and is ready to turn on its MediaFLO service in several new and important markets (like San Francisco) on Feb. 18, so any wait would be irksome for its mobile TV deployments. Gina Lombardi, president of MediaFLO USA, said in an official statement sent to us via email that, “MediaFLO USA continues to build out the network in anticipation of DTV transition. MediaFLO USA is looking forward to providing consumers the best mobile TV experience in those markets that have yet to transition.”

Cox Wireless: The cable company plans to deploy a CDMA network in its AWS spectrum and use the 700 MHz spectrum it won at the auction for 3G and 4G trials. Unlike Verizon’s LTE network, a CDMA network is older technology that can be turned on and deployed fairly rapidly. Cox has said service will be available nationwide in the second half of 2009, so even a short wait could hurt. “This issue will still be addressed by Congress and at present there is no certainty on a delay or if so, how long it would be,” a spokesperson for the cable company told us. “Without clarity on this issue, it is very difficult to speculate on any potential impact to our wireless plans.”

Verizon Wireless (s vz): Verizon plans to deploy its LTE network in this space, and is already protesting the move to extend the deadline for the DTV transition. In a letter to members of Congress, the carrier uses the “Think about the universal broadband plan” argument, noting that it paid $9.3 billion for this spectrum — and wants to use it now.

“Verizon Wireless intends to begin field testing and deployment of LTE this year. Deployment of LTE however, can only be done if we have access to the 700 MHz frequencies. Delaying the DTV transition, will only delay our ability to upgrade those frequencies to 4G broadband for American consumers and have a negative impact on our nation’s competitiveness.”

AT&T (s t) : Engineering sources inside the company wouldn’t say much beyond confirming that extending the DTV deadline would affect rollout times, but that’s not necessarily something consumers would notice. AT&T plans to deploy LTE on its 700 MHz spectrum, but not until 2011 or beyond, which means that unless the transition is pushed beyond a few months, they won’t really sweat it.

However, in a note to Congress, it, too, signaled that any delay beyond three months was unwelcome, and asked for assurances that such a holdup would be a one-time only event. It also suggested that, since it had already paid $6 billion for use of that spectrum, those using it beyond the cutoff date should pay AT&T for the privilege.

Those are the companies, but changing the DTV transition date could also affect the following technologies aiming to play in that spectrum.

White Spaces Broadband: For white spaces broadband, which uses the slices of spectrum available between the digital television signals that will eventually populate the 700 MHz spectrum, the wait clouds the market. I’m not as dismayed as those who argue that, given the confusion and hard economic times, a pause will mean equipment providers and chipmakers may abandon white spaces. After all, proponents of the technology stand to make a lot of money selling white spaces devices.

However, until broadcasters are using digital signals, neither the FCC nor broadcasters can measure real-world interference caused by white spaces. That delays the ability of device makers to get approval for higher-power white spaces devices, which may prove more useful. But as Jeff Thompson CEO of Towerstream (s TWER), a WiMAX operator waiting for white spaces, points out, a three-month wait isn’t much when compared to the normal rigmarole of government regulation.

Free Mobile TV: We’ve written before about broadcasters’ plans for offering free mobile TV in cars, on handhelds and on computers using a standard created by the ATSC. The plans involve transmitting digital signals for both stationary TVs and mobile TVs digitally in the 700 MHz spectrum. However, because broadcasters control when their stations will migrate to the digital signal, those who are ready can choose to do so on Feb. 17, or even sooner if they’d like. So they have little to lose from any DTV delay.