Like its wired-cable counterparts, wireless-cable operators
are not likely to embrace high-definition television as soon as the first local
broadcasters launch their digital services this fall.
"I'm not interested in carrying HDTV at
all," said Michael Whalen, vice president of finance and acquisitions for
People's Choice TV Corp. (PCTV). The company plans to launch a digital-wireless-cable
service later this year, but HDTV won't find a home there.
Instead, PCTV will complement its digital-video service
with high-speed Internet access. In fact, the company only plans to sell the digital-video
product to consumers who also bundle in the Internet service.
Others in the industry have not ruled out HDTV, but they
have not officially committed to the format either.
"We're monitoring the developments of the
broadcasters and programmers," said John Hartman, vice president of BellSouth
Corp.'s BellSouth Entertainment unit, "and planning internally for our systems
to be capable of transmitting it."
"I don't expect to see aggressive HDTV activity
this year on the part of our industry," added Hartman, whose company recently
launched service in Atlanta.
"Our company definitely wants to be a part of
it," said Julie Dodd-Thomas, executive director of external and regulatory affairs at
Pacific Bell Video Services, adding that it's hard to predict when the company would
launch such a service.
"It's not something that will happen
immediately," Dodd-Thomas said. "People have to start selling and buying the
[high-definition] TV sets."
Dodd-Thomas admitted that digital-cable subscribers could
be among the first to adopt HDTV sets.
"Our customers are those that seek new
technologies," she said.
Hartman said that in evaluating the viability of delivering
HDTV signals, any company would have to consider how many consumers have the equipment
necessary to watch them, how much high-definition content programmers are supplying and
what the costs of necessary equipment upgrades would be.
"It's not as simple as a test of consumer-market
penetration," Hartman said. "There are multiple moving parts here."
Andrew Kreig, president of the Wireless Communications
Association International (WCA), said HDTV is not a top priority among its members at the
"There is a concern that HDTV chews up a lot of their
spectrum," he said, and many industry players are shifting their focus to two-way
"The future of HDTV is so murky, why expend the effort
when it's unclear whether the public wants it?" Kreig asked. "We have more
If broadcasters decide to use their digital spectrum to do
multichannel video, Kreig said, it might make sense for them to partner with
wireless-cable operators, which have experience selling subscription television.
At least one direct-broadcast satellite provider, DirecTv
Inc., has similar plans to partner with local broadcasters as they move to digital
T. Lauriston Hardin, chairman and CEO of Hardin &
Associates Inc., said consumers might drop their cable or wireless-cable service if they
have to buy off-air antennae to watch local HDTV feeds.
"That could be an interesting marketing ploy for the
DBS providers," he noted.
Hardin, who is also chairman of the WCA's engineering
committee, sees HDTV as "a fairly vexing problem" that won't be resolved
any time soon.
Channel-capacity issues will be even more difficult for
wireless-cable operators than for cable, because wireless has a fixed number of up to 33
channels per market. For a 1080-interlace-format (1080i) picture, Hardin said, "HDTV
would probably chew up a whole channel."
And, like cable, wireless cable faces modulation-format
concerns in converting signals from the broadcasters' VSB (vestigial sideband)
format, to QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation), and back again. If the signal is
retransmitted in its native VSB format, he added, wireless operators may need better
Hardin added that the set-top boxes needed to handle HDTV
don't yet exist, and that migrating to HDTV will bring added costs to any operator
that does so.
"As an association, we're beginning to look at
the issue," Hardin said. "We're looking at a 15-year HDTV build-out"
before the technology is fully adopted by consumers, he predicted.