Today, cellphone users can watch prerecorded TV snippets on Sprint and Cingular’s MobiTV or Verizon’s Vcast. But by next year, they may be able to watch live TV content from a variety of cellular phones.
As a step toward inaugurating its Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld (DVB-H) service, Houston-based Crown Castle International has licensed 5 MHz of spectrum nationwide in an FCC auction—at the surprisingly low price of $12 million. Crown Castle is testing the system in Pittsburgh now but ought to be able to deploy its signal over a wide portion of the U.S. by the end of next year.
“We can conservatively fit eight TV channels and 12 audio channels in our spectrum,” says Crown Castle Mobile Media President Michael Schueppert. “We still have a lot of things to pull together, like getting handsets and aggregating the content, but things are going well.”
Unlike current mobile video services such as Vcast and MobiTV, Crown Castle’s DVB-H is not a unicast, or one-to-one, transmission. The unicast model is expensive to build and maintain because the cellular network needs enough capacity to send out individual streams to subscribers. As it grows in popularity, the infrastructure to push the content needs to be expanded.
Not so with DVB-H. As long as the cellphone has a DVB-H receiver chip, it will be able to pull down local TV signals retransmitted by Crown Castle.
“One of the big advantages is that, because it uses terrestrial transmission, we can carry local content in the same way as TV stations and offer different local services in different markets,” says Schueppert. “We’ll want to work with local broadcasters because they do the best job with local news, weather and sports.” But it is also clear that DVB-H, which Crown Castle will brand with a less cumbersome name at some point, can also deliver cable news and sports networks. Crown Castle says it will pay retransmission fees to content providers; the product is new enough that Crown Castle doesn’t know what consumers will be charged.
Peter MacAvock, who heads the effort in Europe to continue evolving DVB-H standards (the service is already available in Finland and the UK, and coming to China soon), is more bullish on the channel capacity. He says that, depending on compression level, it is possible to deliver 15-30 channels.
Microsoft will provide Crown Castle with VC1 compression, streaming and digital-rights-management (DRM) technology. SES Americom will provide satellite space for delivering TV signals to the transmitters that will eventually be located across the country.
VC1 compression takes less memory to decode the TV signal, an important feature because it means the phone’s processor doesn’t have to be as large and won’t drain as much of the battery.
Crown Castle’s plans include expanding the network to nine “always on” sites for a more in-depth trial than the one it has been running in Pittsburgh, says Crown Castle Mobile Media CTO Nick Davies. The company needs to probe data rates and quality issues like indoor reception, plus end-user requirements, including display resolution.
The company still has to negotiate with content and cellular providers. Crown Castle wants a large footprint, so it is not interested in exclusive deals. It could also deliver TV pictures over other mobile devices, but, for now, the focus is on the cellphone. “That’s the device Joe Public will want to use,” says Schueppert.
BROADCASTERS WAIT AND SEE
When Crown Castle showed off the technology at the National Association of Broadcasters Show last month, the techies were interested, but broadcasters weren’t putting it on their to-do lists right away. That doesn’t concern Schueppert: “Right now, our customers are the wireless carriers, because their primary business model is pay-TV services to cellphones.”
And he believes content providers will eventually get it. “Our value proposition,” he says, “is helping them repurpose content and build other revenue streams without cannibalizing existing services.”
The biggest challenge for Crown Castle may be overcoming a prejudice that exists against such services. “Just six months ago, people were very skeptical because they looked at MobiTV and saw two frames per second of performance,” says Schueppert. “But we have vastly better economics and more value because of our transmission method.”