Saturday, August 28, 2010

Broadcasters defend push for mandatory FM tuners

Newspaper publishers didn't ask the U.S. Congress to put news-reading apps on mobile phones. Walkie-talkie and CB radio makers haven't pushed Apple or Nokia for radio frequency compatibility.
But radio broadcasters are a bit more politically ambitious. Claiming public safety benefits, the National Association of Broadcasters is proposing a new federal law that would force manufacturers to implant FM tuners in all mobile phones.
Mobile phone radio reception
In an interview with CNET on Thursday, NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton said that because nonbroadcast wireless networks tend to become clogged during emergencies, "there would be a public benefit to have free and local radio on all of these devices."
"I don't think it's a huge burden on cell phone manufacturers to add this device," Wharton said. Lending its support is the Music First coalition, which includes the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the American Federation of Musicians.
What Wharton didn't add, probably because it was obvious enough, is that giving radio stations a way to expand their audience--as more Americans turn to the Internet for news and iPods for music--also could yield a welcome increase in audience and revenue. (Since 2006, radio advertising revenue has plummeted from $21.4 billion to $16 billion, a 26 percent decline.)
This FM tuner proposal may seem to have popped, Aphrodite-like, out of the ether. But in reality, it's been simmering for a while as part of a long-running discussion of radio royalties. One possibility: if NAB agrees to pay about $100 million a year to musicians and their managers in exchange for an FM tuner, then all that needs to happen is for Congress to order device makers to go along.
"If we were to present our legislative package [to Congress], we'd hope they'd take it seriously this year," NAB's Wharton said.
The NAB's push for implantation of FM receivers has created--in what came as a surprise during the middle of Washington's August doldrums--a political flap that is pitting broadcasters and the music industry against consumer electronics makers and technology companies. It's even inspired some clever artwork.
Six of the largest tech trade associations have publicly opposed any forcible-FM-tuner-implantation. In a letter sent this week to the Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over the topic, the tech groups said the idea amounted to candlestick makers campaigning against the electric light bulb: "Calls for an FM chip mandate are not about public safety but are instead about propping up a business which consumers are abandoning as they avail themselves of new, more consumer-friendly options."
Just so nobody missed the casual insult, Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, likened the broadcasters and the recording industry to "buggy-whip industries that refuse to innovate and seek to impose penalties on those that do."
What's more, said the letter that was signed by the Consumer Electronics Association, CTIA-The Wireless Association, TechAmerica, and the Information Technology Industry Council--the groups behind the idea "lack any expertise in the development of wireless devices and are in no position to dictate what type of functionality is included in a wireless device."
Wharton readily conceded that radio broadcasters have not sketched out a detailed proposal. He noted that the NAB board has not yet voted to proceed with asking Congress to enact mandatory FM tuners. When asked about whether an FM tuner would require a lengthy antenna, Wharton said that was a question for MIT engineers to figure out, not him.
But he's not willing to shrink back from political cage-fighting either. "We understand their opposition," Wharton said. "They'd rather usage based pricing, to have FM over IP so they can charge for it. That's where their business model is headed." FM broadcasts, he notes, are free.
"We've had discussions with cell phone makers, and there's been some progress but not much," Wharton said. "We argue that there would be a public benefit to have free and local radio on all of these devices."
Even though revenues are shrinking, radio's audience is growing. Recent Arbitron data suggests radio reaches 239 million people--aged 12 and older--in a typical week.
In an odd twist, though, the very manufacturers whose Washington representatives are savaging NAB's proposal already appear to include FM tuners in their wireless gadgetry.
A teardown and analysis of the iPhone 3G performed by market intelligence firm iSuppli says Apple uses a single-chip Bluetooth/FM/WLAN device made by Broadcom. The Droid uses a Texas Instruments Bluetooth/WLAN/FM transmitter and receiver, iSuppli says, and the BlackBerry Torch is outfitted with a Texas Instruments WL1271A Bluetooth/WLAN/FM chip.
Of course, the mere existence of a built-in feature on a chip doesn't mean the manufacturer has enabled it, added an antenna, or provided a way for the operating system to do anything useful with it. (Microsoft's Zune does feature an FM radio.)
And this is precisely what the consumer electronics groups say: "Requiring an FM chip would require a separate antenna in order to accommodate the significant differences between FM signal wavelengths and cellular/PCS signal wavelengths."

Paul Allen Sues Apple.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen fired a patent shot across the bow of several prominent technology companies Friday, suing Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others over patent claims.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen
Allen's firm Interval Licensing filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the above companies, as well as AOL, eBay, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, and Staples, are violating patents he received for several Internet technologies while leading Interval Research, now out of business. The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, based in Seattle.
Interval said in a press release that "the patents in the lawsuit cover fundamental web technologies first developed at Interval Research in the 1990s, which the company believes are being infringed by major e-commerce and web search companies." David Postman, a spokesman for Allen, said this is the first time that patents related to Interval Research's work have been litigated.
Postman wouldn't comment on whether licensing discussions had taken place with the defendants prior to the filing of the lawsuit, but did say that all companies were informed that Interval held "patents of interest." The companies targeted were done so because of their work in e-commerce and search, Postman said. For example, Interval included as an exhibit in its lawsuit a screen grab of a very early "About Google" Web page from 1998 that lists Interval Research Corporation as an outside collaborator.
One may wonder why Allen's former company--Microsoft, which operates the third-leading search engine in the U.S. and now provides search technology to Yahoo--was not cited in the complaint. Postman said he would not discuss litigation strategies but emphasized that Interval is not necessarily done with these patents; in that, it might seek to widen the circle of defendants at a later date.
Representatives for Apple and Google did not immediately return requests for comment. However, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said "We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously."