Mobilizing for Mobile DTV

Broadcasters, wireless carriers eye new technologies that will break limits

Complete Coverage: NAB 2012

The NAB show saw several key announcements by broadcasters planning to roll out mobile DTV broadcasts, along with some debate over the future of those efforts.

Early in the show, the Mobile Content Venture announced that 17 additional television stations will launch mobile DTV, bringing the current total to 92, covering more than 55% of U.S. homes.

In an important evolutionary step, the additions include some CBS owned-and-operated stations (CBS O&Os previously had not participated in the effort) and LIN Media. Three new markets—Austin, Boston and Dayton, Ohio—were also added to the growing list of areas where the service will be launched.

Meanwhile, the Mobile500 Alliance added four new public stations as members and announced that one of the CBS owned-and-operated stations, CW affiliate KSTW in Seattle, will join the effort.

The Mobile500 is planning a test of its mobile DTV service this summer in Seattle on Fisher Communications’ KOMO, and in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market on Hubbard Broadcasting’s KSTP. Additional channels could follow as early as the fall for the services, which will broadcast live TV and include on-demand content, DVR capabilities and interactive ads.

“When you look at the over 34 million tablets sold in 2011 and start thinking about how fast that usage is growing, it becomes a very exciting proposition for broadcasters,” said Colleen Brown, president and CEO of Fisher Communications and chair of the Mobile500 Alliance board of directors.

But the NAB Show also saw some debate over the best technologies for mobile video delivery, along with various attendant problems facing broadcasters.

During the “Mobile Video and Mobile TV— Beyond YouTube” session, one of the key issues involved getting devices into the market that are capable of receiving the signals. Peter Siebert, executive director of the DVB Project Office in Europe, stressed the importance of devices by noting that the DVB-H standard for mobile broadcasts had failed to take off in Europe because of the lack of devices in the market. The providers of mobile broadcasts “weren’t willing to subsidize the devices, so there were no devices,” Siebert said.

So far, U.S. groups have had only limited success in getting manufacturers to develop smartphones or tablets with mobile DTV chips included in the devices. As a result, both MCV and the Mobile500 have worked with outside manufacturers to offer accessories that can be attached to existing iPads or smartphones for reception. These will be coming into the market, but they require an additional purchase, which could slow adoption.

In contrast, providers of traditional cell services don’t face this problem with devices. Their big issue is the lack of capacity for the growing use of video, and the fact that traditional cellular networks will collapse under use that is too heavy.

Peggy Johnson, executive VP and president, global market development at Qualcomm, addressed this problem during the NAB session. Johnson noted that Qualcomm actually chose to use a broadcast architecture for mobile video for the failed FLO TV service because it was more efficient than unicast.

Since shutting down the service, however, Qualcomm has been working on developing LTE broadcast technologies that would provide a flexible alternative to some of the well-known capacity issues of current unicast cellular networks.

This technology would mean operators could switch part of their LTE network to broadcasts during a period when many people are accessing the same content—something that usually crashes a cellular network—and then switch back to unicast when the demand declines.

Johnson feels that this approach, and other newer cellular technologies, gives carriers the flexibility to handle the well-known bandwidth crunch facing mobile operators.

Because this strengthens the position of existing carriers as providers of video services, Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology at Sinclair Broadcast Group, quipped during a panel following Johnson’s talk that her “presentation should have scared the pants off of broadcasters.”

While Aitken stressed the importance of launching mobile DTV services using the ATSC M/H standard, he added that in the long run, broadcasters will need to move to a standard that is compatible with LTE or 4G services.

“If we had a standard that was an extension of LTE, we could be broadcasting over LTE with an extended chip set,” Aitken said. This would avoid the problem of getting new devices into the market.

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