The Wireless Burden: Our Never-Ending Thirst for News
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently commented that because of the rising popularity of mobile devices, the U.S. will be staring down a wireless network traffic jam soon unless better management tactics are implemented. The foundation for this growth -- the reason so many people are buying and using all these data-hungry gadgets -- is our constant, insatiable appetite for news.
There's a perfect storm building in the technology world, and as we know, that world keeps spilling over into that other world -- you know, the one where real people live.
This storm will manifest itself in the media, of course, thanks to the forces driving its increasing wind speeds: The rise of social networks, the increasing number of gadgets vying for our discretionary income, the need for more wireless bandwidth.
But the biggest factor? The real wind beneath the tech industry's wings? Despite recent polls showing low rankings for journalistic credibility, this news just in: It's all about the news. The public is demanding more of it in text and video form -- whether it's about healthcare reform, breaking news regarding a plane landing in the Hudson River, NFL coverage or the Hollywood celebrity outrage du jour. And there are more and more media outlets only too willing to feed that addiction, with both straight news and either tongue-in-cheek or politically biased reactions to said news items.
So when FCC chairman Julius Genachowski weighed in this week at the annual CTIA wireless industry trade show in San Diego about the need to boost bandwidth because of the massive growth in mobile phones and the applications that ride on them, he's really talking about that news addiction.
With carriers already building out 4G networks, the situation demands immediate treatment. People aren't just flocking to their mobile-phone providers of choice to grab smartphones for email and text messaging (how 20th century). They're stuffing their Facebook, Twitter and Flickr accounts with on-the-go updates, photos and videos. They're accessing links to news items delivered to them by their trusted media filters -- I'm sorry, did I say trusted media filters? I meant to say friends -- when they're not taking news-based quizzes and playing social media games like "Mafia Wars."
A Real News Feed
Those social networks are evolving into news ranking systems, for better or worse. Check out Muckrack.com during your Web travels. I've written before about this site that tracks what journalists are saying on Twitter; it may give you a sneak peek at a major daily's front page or an evening newscast's first segment. At the very least, it's a way to track news themes as well as the interests of those who bring you the news.
As I write this, the trending topics on Muckrack are Herta Muller winning the Nobel Prize for literature, British politician David Cameron and a meeting of that country's conservative party, Michelle Obama, Philadelphia (the baseball team and the city in general), Windows software, Aghanistan, David Letterman's sex scandal and the Republican party. Take one complete, updated story from each item, add photos, arrange them on a big sheet of hammered wood pulp, and you've got what my mom and dad used to call a "daily newspaper"; national and international news, sports, features and entertainment.
Many of the journalists filing tweets for their outlets do so via mobile devices while covering stories. More people are reading or viewing those tweets, not to mention the finished stories on media outlet Web sites, via smartphones or laptops hooked up to WiFi networks or sporting their own network cards.
Genachowski mentioned the rapid deployment of iPhone applications -- roughly 80,000 at last count -- and all those downloads clogging up the wireless frequencies. One of the newest is the CNN iPhone app, now on sale for $1.99 per download, thereby becoming one of the first examples of paid content in this new media paradigm. For your two bucks, you get access to video and text news, but you can also play citizen journalist with the iReport feature. Use the new camera in your iPhone 3GS to capture breaking news video and send it along to Wolf Blitzer and company. You can also send comments via Facebook or Twitter to CNN producers waiting for your feedback on the top stories of the day.
My big hope is that Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and MySpace stop watching as broadcast and cable networks and local TV stations take advantage of their newsgathering and crowdsourcing abilities, and start to build out some news-based strategies of their own. The "newsfeed" option on your Facebook page could be just that: a stream of news-related links and photos that send you off in a multitude of directions for information on breaking news and thoughtful news analysis, if your "filters" are oriented in that direction. Of course, your "filters" could also be rabid ideological partisans sending you off to like-minded "news" source sites, but then again, they're your friends, so you probably wouldn't mind that at all.
Feed the Beast
My point is that there needs to be Twitter News, Facebook News, Flickr News -- all collated, curated and filtered by the people, some of it generated by the people. And my guess is that some of those people wouldn't mind sitting through a 15-second pre-roll commercial in video or looking at a banner ad on the Twitter News page as long as they continued to get the content for free.
The makers of the new FLO TV Personal Television, coming in time for the holiday shopping season, actually used the news to pitch me on the usefulness of what is essentially one more gadget for first adopters to consider in a recession. The company's director of product management said that more people would consider FLO's US$249 personal TV device (plus $8.99 a month) for the ability to watch live breaking news and sports from their office cubicle or car. He used the examples of the Obama inauguration and the "miracle on the Hudson" to indicate how you could watch all that on a FLO TV without enduring buffering or pixilation, as you would if watching Web-based streaming video. The FLO TV uses a multicast signal, which is supposedly more reliable, but it's still made up of signals flying through the air, bumping up against others on wirelsss broadband networks, helping to create the "looming wireless spectrum crisis" that Genachowski spoke of to the CTIA audience.
The winds are blowing in more media-centric devices like smartphones and tablet PC's, as well as e-readers like the wireless Kindle. More apps that will serve as enablers for the public's media addiction are no doubt being brewed up in home offices and company conferences right now. Information sickness, as described in cyberpunk science-fiction, looms as much as the wireless spectrum crisis. (In my case, it's a pre-existing condition, and I just hope that any new healthcare reform package approved by Congress will cover my treatments.) But that crisis is as much a product of our all-news, all-the-time media universe as the growth of smartphone sales and the rise of alternative news sources.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.