The iPanel, 4G Internet, and the Unfolding Drama of the Post-Commercial Broadcast Age

by Douglas Hardwick

Over the next several seasons observers of Canadian broadcast media can expect technological and corporate drama far more entertaining than any programming content.

There is no question that the 20th century model of commercial television has passed its prime. With the advent of internet streaming, and a host of other alternatives, viewers are cutting the cable cord at an ever increasing rate. There is mounting resentment against commercial interruptions, inferior network programming and inconvenient scheduling.

Even the most technically challenged are beginning to watch content through the internet. So what’s coming down the pipeline to further free humanity from the antiquated broadcast paradigm bestowed by the early days of radio?

Most importantly we should consider the global implementation of the 4G wireless network, which is being cunningly introduced to Canadian consumers as “the next big thing in mobile telephone technology”—when in actuality it is far more revolutionary than that. Whereas 3G networks transmit relatively modest amounts of data suitable for mobile phone use, 4G networks can easily transmit 10 times that volume, pumping download bitrates from 3.5 to 35 megabits per second – enough to stream three high definition movies simultaneously.

So why, you may ask, would you want to stream HD content onto a small screened mobile device? Especially since it currently costs about $6 per gigabyte to download over a cellular network with a cap of 6GB. A very good point, but if you recast these questions in a slightly different way the media world becomes a much more intriguing place. The questions for the future should be: “Why can’t I access the 4G network seamlessly on a much larger screen?” and “Why am I paying outrageous mobile data rates for what is really a wireless internet service?

The answer to the first is that a large screen 4G device is ‚Ä®inevitable. Pundits are predicting the imminent release of a device by Apple rumored to be called an iPanel which—you guessed it—will be much like an iPad except much bigger.

The features to be included in this “iPanel” are matter of debate but it is fair to assume that it will have all of the features of an iPad 3 and have a built-in antenna that will receive 4G signals far better than any mobile device. It will sync and stream from mobile devices, incorporate “apps” to extend its functionality and have wired internet and a coaxial cable plug for “reverse compatibility.”

As for the second question “Why am I paying so much for wireless data?” The answer is a little more complex. The introduction of large screen 4G devices as described will certainly have a detrimental impact on the established cable network broadcasting system. If viewers are “cable-cutting” now, the introduction of iPanel-like devices will certainly accelerate this trend, ultimately crippling the TV broadcast industry.

In Canada there are three national wireless providers. Rogers Wireless (including its subsidiary Fido) has 35% of the wireless market; Bell Mobility 28%; and Telus 28%. All three have a significant interest in wired internet services, having invested heavily in copper cable installations that also deliver broadcast TV content.

More significantly, Bell and Rogers, through Bell Media and Rogers Media, own the majority television and radio stations in Canada. So is it in the interest of these large media companies to provide limitless wireless internet data to customers at a reasonable price? Probably not!

So with the above in mind I predict eight interesting outcomes over the next few broadcast seasons.

First, I expect Apple to be the first to do for television what it did for the cellular phone and the tablet. Without doubt other companies such as Google and the TV manufacturers will follow suit.

Second, I expect wireless providers, such as xplornet (not owned by behemoth media companies) to begin offering economical wireless internet services by building both terrestrial infrastructure and satellite systems.

Third, I expect the behemoth media/cable companies to protest these advancements like entitled petulant teenagers who have just been grounded and had their allowance canceled.

Fourth, I expect developing nations such as India to leapfrog over cable technology and begin providing inexpensive 4G services to most citizens – placing themselves in a more competitive technological and economic position.

Fifth, I expect American and European communications agencies to emphasize the expansion of 4G by reclaiming and redistributing bandwidth previously dedicated to television broadcasting.

Sixth, I expect the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to initially side with the media/cable companies in a vain attempt to prevent Canadians from gaining access to limitless international content. Canadian content will have to compete in a market-driven world, rendering existing protection and funding incentives ineffective and redundant.

Seventh, I expect media-related Canadian cultural agencies such as Telefilm Canada to keep their heads buried in the bureaucratic sand, remaining largely reactive and ineffectual.

Last, I expect the Harper Government to overcome its bias in favor of large corporations and recognize the importance of wireless internet to a vast country like Canada, and then legislate in favor of a fairly priced wireless internet future – if only to avoid the embarrassment of placing Canada on the wrong side of the narrowing international “digital divide.”

As this drama unfolds other important questions will come to the fore. Like, how will we find, filter and manage the seemingly limitless volume of international content coming our way? How will we pay for it... or not? And how will we ensure that there remains a viable Canadian motion picture media economy capable of financing future content production?

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Douglas Hardwick

Douglas Hardwick

Doug is a 25-year veteran of the Vancouver Film Industry and an avid media technology observer. A graduate of UBC, Doug has an eclectic academic background ranging from intellectual history to film history to industrial education; and a professional background ranging from teaching high-school to art direction to set construction management. In 2009 Doug became the Founder and CEO of mediAm... more

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