'Casting Wars' A Factor In Wireless Telco Assault


“Casting wars” – a protocol battle between Google’s Chromecast, Apple’s Airplay and the Miracast peer-to-peer screencast standard – could play a role in the plans to Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and other carriers to develop Internet Protocol (IP) wireless broadband video packages that compete with cable.

 The protocol smackdown may take a few years to sort out, which fits the timetable of the FCC spectrum auctions that will determine the wireless telcos’ agenda for video competition.  Not coincidentally, the wireless broadband video services could eventually operate on the spectrum now used for linear TV if the telcos can acquire that bandwidth in the FCC’s looming airwaves auction.

Much of what follows is informed speculation, based on discussions with executives in several sectors of the affected industries.  The telcos are not commenting about their plans.

The casting wars involve the final few yards as rival technologies battle to deliver video content from wireless receivers (mainly tablets and smartphones) to big flat-panel display screens.

According to some scenarios, handheld devices will become “tuners” – not just program guides and second-screen interactivity tools.  Tablets and other wireless broadband receivers will pull Internet Protocol (IP) video from telcos’ LTE (Long Term Evolution) airwaves, then transmit – or “cast” – the shows to nearby big screens.

Where’s the evidence for the telcos’ efforts to create a wireless, on-demand competitor for broadcast TV channels or cable systems?  Start with Verizon’s recent acquisition spree. In the past couple months. Verizon and its subsidiaries have snapped up Edgecast, the content delivery network (CDN) service, and upLynx, a cloud-based streaming multiscreen video solutions provider.  Verizon’s expected, imminent purchase of Intel’s nascent “OnCue” Internet TV venture adds to the on-demand capabilities.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference two weeks ago, called wireless broadband channels a “win-win” for all parties.  He acknowledged that Verizon has had “lots of discussions” with sports leagues, which, he said, liked the idea of out-of-market video delivery. (He acknowledged that a major obstacle is distribution rights currently held by other TV networks.) McAdam did not reveal any specific plans—but just knowing Verizon’s intent to carry live sports via wireless networks adds to the credibility of such services.

Collectively, these new assets contribute to the growing expectation that Verizon, which has frozen its land-locked FiOS agenda, is now turning to the airwaves for multichannel content delivery.  AT&T’s purchase of Qualcomm’s FloTV spectrum two years ago similarly set the stage for national delivery of IP video; overall, AT&T has been less acquisitive, but it is also believed to be stocking its arsenal to deliver wireless video.

In both cases, the wireless broadband video service would enable the telco TV initiatives to move outside the regional footprints of legacy landline operations.

Aiding and abetting this vision of home TV delivery via licensed and unlicensed wireless systems is technology such as WiDi (Wireless Display), developed by Intel, which enables viewers to stream, or “cast,” video and other content from a desktop or – in this scenario – a tablet or other portable device to any HDTV, UHD or other big-screen digital displays. WiDi supports HD 1080p video quality, 5.1 surround sound, and low latency for interacting with applications that are sent to the TV.

That’s a collection of capabilities that fits wireless carriers’ visions for multiple revenue sources as well as measurable interactivity (including video-on-demand). It also incorporates the home networking plans of many technology providers – including “casting wars” combatants such as Apple, Google and Intel.  

Cable companies can fit into this new wireless agenda in several ways.  Content suppliers, or course, can repackage their shows into linear or on-demand segments for the telcos’ wireless broadband services.  Operators may find ways to use the casting wars as an alternative home network opportunity.

Ultimately, the casting wars and the entire wireless telco TV initiative represent another way to compete for, as well as confuse, customers.

Battle on.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC, a research and consulting firm.  www.ArlenCom.com