Technology

Mobile DTV Rollout Continues

Vendors see pick up in orders for new equipment as stations begin launching mobile broadcasts 7/12/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

While the business model for mobile DTV is still being
figured out, local stations are moving forward and gradually launching mobile
DTV broadcasts. Transmission vendors says that it's still the early days for
the technology, but they are seeing orders pick up for the array of new
equipment-including multiplexers, encoders and new or upgraded exciters-needed
to launch mobile DTV.

Jay Adrick, VP of technology for Harris, says that more
than 50 mobile DTV stations are now on-air, with Harris gear in most of them.
Harris helped put Scripps station WXYZ and Post-Newsweek station WDIV in
Detroit on-air in late May, and has also supplied transmission gear for the
bulk of the stations participating in the Washington, D.C., showcase. It is
also providing remote monitoring for the trial's network operations center,
located at Gannett's WUSA in D.C.

According to Adrick, a typical Harris mobile DTV system
sells for around $150,000. It includes a Synchrony mobile networking adapter;
two NetVX encoders to support two mobile streams; a multiplexer; and Roundbox
signaling and Electronic Service Guide technology. "The beauty of the system
architecture is that the second, third and fourth stream is relatively
inexpensive, roughly $20,000 per stream," he says.

Of course, not every station wants or needs a new
complement of all Harris gear. On that note, Harris is working with the ATSC
and other vendors such as Axcera to create a standardized interface between the
"mobile adapter" at the studio and the exciter at the transmitter so different
vendors' gear can talk to each other. In the interim, it has performed
integration work for stations like WXYZ, which is using a Harris multiplexer
and encoders with an Axcera exciter.

Axcera has its mobile DTV gear installed at about five
stations, says president David Neff, and is starting to get more orders for
complete mobile DTV systems including multiplexers, exciters, encoders and
other gear (Axcera resells Ericsson and Envivio encoders and Expway's ESG
solution). He predicts that Axcera could help another 20 to 30 stations launch
mobile DTV by year-end.

As Neff puts it: "The interest is starting to build."

Neff estimates that a basic single-stream system costs
$100,000, perhaps $20,000 less if a station has a late-model Axcera exciter
that can be upgraded via software. He notes that his company is well-known for
upgrading other vendors' exciters, and expects it will get similar business
with mobile DTV.

Axcera has already successfully tested a single-frequency
network (SFN), which uses multiple transmitters to improve coverage, for mobile
DTV with WTVE in Reading, Pa. Neff predicts that SFNs, which to date have been
used by a handful of conventional DTV stations with unusual coverage problems,
will be broadly used in mobile DTV, particularly if broadcasters decide to
launch pay-TV services.

"If mobile DTV takes off and as is going to be
successful, I think you have to do that," says Neff. "Fixed broadcasting is
fine from a tall tower, with a single transmitter in a market. But if mobile is
really going to work well, it will have to work inside buildings, when you're
driving in the city, behind buildings, and [other areas] with terrain
shielding. You're going to have to have more than one transmitter to make it
successful. I think people expect it to work where a mobile phone works."

Deploying an SFN is one of the extra costs that might be
associated with launching a subscription mobile DTV service. Another, notes
Adrick, is conditional access. Adrick says conditional access can increase a
stations' mobile DTV investment significantly, as suppliers like Nagravision
may license their technology across both the number of streams delivered and
the number of individual subscribers receiving them.

"That's expensive, it could be a couple hundred of
thousands of dollars [per station]," says Adrick.

Neither Neff nor Adrick say they have seen any pullback
in mobile DTV orders in the face of the FCC's proposed plan to reclaim some of
the broadcast spectrum on a voluntary basis, a source of continued debate in
Washington.

"If anything, broadcasters have gotten more aggressive
about mobile to drive a stake in the ground about what their spectrum
requirements are," says Adrick.

Raycom Media has two stations lit up with mobile DTV
today, WBTV Charlotte, N.C., a UHF station that began transmitting mobile
streams late last year, and WSFA Montgomery, Ala., a VHF station that launched
mobile DTV early this year. Both are simulcasting the station's main program
feed. It cost about $150,000 to $200,000 to upgrade each station to pump out
mobile DTV, says Pat LaPlatney, VP of digital media for Raycom Media.

The group is still in the test mode, but so far is
pleased with the reception characteristics of mobile DTV.

"The ATSC M/H signal's footprint is similar to the ATSC
signal," says LaPlatney. "As with any signal, there are variances, but we're
pretty happy with what we have seen so far."

That includes the VHF signals of WSFA, which LaPlatney
has been able to pick up with prototype receivers he's testing, which include
Valups' "Tivizen", a small device that retransmits mobile DTV streams over a
Wi-Fi link; some USB dongle-type tuners; and a prototype LG personal TV. Raycom
has yet to conduct any consumer testing of mobile DTV.

"We haven't really reached out to consumers, as we don't
have the number of devices that we would need to do a serious test," says
LaPlatney. "Most devices have stayed at the station, and we've showed them to
certain clients. As far as the general public goes, there aren't enough devices
out there to start promoting this thing yet. That will change, but it's going
to take some time."

Based on what he's hearing from members of the Open
Mobile Video Coalition and Pearl Mobile DTV, a nine-station coalition of which
Raycom is a member, LaPlatney expects that mobile DTV receivers will hit retail
en masse by the end of 2010 or early 2011.

LaPlatney wouldn't discuss the programming plans of
Mobile Content Venture, and said the group was still evaluating whether a
pay-TV model would work for mobile DTV. But he says the agreement between NBC,
Fox, Ion and the Pearl Group stations was a big step for mobile DTV's development.

"Obviously it's a benefit to have network partners in
this venture," he says. "I don't think there's any question about that."

LaPlatney manages Raycom's other digital businesses
including online video and possible datacasting applications such as feeding
digital signage. He is intrigued by the possibility of doing interactive
applications through mobile DTV that use the receiver's cellular backchannel.

"That part of it is very exciting, to be able to provide
that type of data back to advertisers," he says. "Targeting like that is a
tremendous benefit."

Media General is close to installing mobile DTV at its
stations in Tampa, Fla. and Columbus, Ohio, the NBC affiliates WFLA and WCMH.
It will be placing orders with Harris for new mobile DTV transmission gear,
with installation slated for early August. Other providers of ancillary
compenents include Grass Valley and Miranda.

"We may be on the air in early September," says Ardell
Hill, president of broadcast services.

Hill says a "basic, bare-bones" mobile DTV installation
can be done for $100,000, but that Media General will likely spend closer to
$200,000 per station. In addition to making the "front-end" modifications to
the transmission plant to support two streams of mobile DTV, including
upgrading the exciter and installing a new multiplexer, Media General stations
will also be adding the capability to insert local spots into the mobile DTV
feeds and the ability to do local branding on possible national program feeds.

"We're going to be able to brand, insert local content,
and provide at least two program sources," says Hill "One will be a simulcast,
the other one, who knows?"

Media General has chosen Tampa and Columbus as its first
mobile DTV markets for "both business and technical reasons," says Hill.

"On the business side, we'll be amongst a group of
broadcasters who will be on the air in both markets. For the early adopters,
the whole idea is to make sure the consumer experience is there, so consumers
can see it. "

On the technical side, Tampa is a VHF station. VHF has
problems in markets with terrain issues, says Hill, but he is interested to see
how VHF will perform for mobile DTV in the flatlands of Florida.

Hill finds the initial consumer feedback from the Open
Mobile Video Coalition's consumer trial in Washington to be very encouraging,
both in regards to mobile DTV reception and the service itself

"The areas where we thought we'd do well [with
reception], we're doing much better than we hoped," says Hill. "And the areas
where we thought we would struggle, we're doing better than expected."

Feedback from consumers suggests that consumers "use it
on the move and use it frequently" says Hill, while most consumption in "short
bites."

"Most of the experiences are very good. They're surprised
by the quality of the pictures."

Hill says the benchmark threshold for how much bandwidth
will be used to mobile DTV is 4 to 5 Mbps, which could fit comfortably
alongside the existing HD program feed and single digital subchannel carried by
most Media General stations. Like other broadcasters, he hopes that his
stations still have the full 6 mhz of digital spectrum to play with going
forward, instead of the FCC reclaiming part of the spectrum.

"The worst thing we can do is to have the bandwidth taken
away from us because people assume we're not using it, so we don't need it,"
says Hill.

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