NAB: Station Groups Team for Mobile DTV Effort


Nine major station groups have joined forces to speed the development of in-band mobile DTV technology that will allow stations to transmit program streams aimed at cell phones and in-vehicle receivers while maintaining their existing high-definition broadcasts.

The station groups in the Open Mobile Video Coalition, which encompass some 280 stations and whose signals reach some 95 million households, include Belo Corp., Fox Television Stations, Gannett Broadcasting, Gray Television, ION Media Networks, the NBC & Telemundo Television Stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Broadcasting Company. 

The Coalition says it will work with the NAB’s Advanced Technology Advocacy Committee to help develop and commercialize mobile DTV solutions, and it is actively recruiting members at the annual convention this week in Las Vegas.

“This will provide us with a unified voice,” says ION president and CEO Brandon Burgess.

Sinclair and ION are assisting mobile DTV demonstrations at NAB of two competing technologies, MPH from Harris/LG and A-VSB from Samsung/Rohde & Schwarz, and representatives from both groups attended Samsung and Harris press events Sunday in support of mobile DTV efforts.

Sinclair VP Del Parks and Burgess both spoke at the Harris/LG press conference Sunday night to preach the potential of mobile DTV, without expressing public support for either standard.

Burgess says he has spent the past three months traveling with other ION executives on a “road show” to visit with broadcasters and gauge their interest in mobile applications. After meeting with some “90% of the broadcasters around the nation,” Burgess is convinced that the early skepticism over mobile DTV has gone away. He notes that pursuing mobile DTV has little downside for broadcasters, since the start-up costs are negligible (perhaps $100,000 or less per station).

“This is a situation where all ships will rise with the tide,” says Burgess. “Mobile is the next killer app for DTV to recapture and reassemble audiences that have been migrating out of the living room.”

David Donovan, president of industry trade group Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), also attended the Harris/LG event to voice support for mobile DTV development.

“Broadcast interest in portable and mobile is extremely high,” says Donovan. “MSTV looks forward to working with broadcasters to help make mobile video a reality in expedited fashion.”

ION formed a division in February called OMVION that is focused on developing new revenue streams from mobile applications. Burgess says that the size of the Open Mobile Video Coalition should help in fundraising for new ventures.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of investors, and what they say is, if you want me to invest, show me the demand,” says Burgess. “This does that.”

Both Burgess and Parks say the Coalition is still evaluating the competing MPH and A-VSB standards, as well as new technologies that might emerge, and isn’t favoring any one at this point. Burgess says the ultimate choice will probably come down to the most efficient bandwidth utilization of broadcasters’ digital payload, as well as the licensing fees associated with the rollout of commercial receivers. He rode the Harris/LG bus on Sunday and said it was “quite remarkable to see the technology in action.”

This reporter rode both the Harris/LG and Samsung/Rohde & Schwarz demonstration buses Monday and can attest that both systems delivered reliable mobile reception at up to highway speeds, particularly with the mobile streams transmitted in the most robust signal mode, which delivers a lower usable bit-rate for video due to more enhanced error correction. While it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from such a demo, it is also clear to the casual observer that the MPH system, which is debuting at NAB, will give some stiff competition to A-VSB, which launched last year and was already demonstrated at CES in January

Both systems showed two mobile streams of varying signal robustness, compressed with MPEG-4 encoding, alongside an HD signal. The MPH system delivered one stream of 557 kilobits of video from 2.2 megabits per second (Mbps) of DTV bandwidth in normal mode, a simulcast of KVCW programming, while the more robust mode delivered 299 kilobits of video from a similar 2.2 Mbps slice and showed demonstration content. Both streams were receivable at highway speeds up to 55 mph and stood up to a short drive through a tunnel under the Las Vegas Convention Center, though the normal stream had a few picture errors at highway speed.

The Samsung A-VSB demo showed “half-rate” encoding, which delivered 1 Mbps of video from 2 Mbps of bandwidth to simulcast KVMY’s normal programming, as well as more robust “quarter-rate encoding,” which delivered 500 kilobits per second of bandwidth to show demonstration content. The “quarter-rate” stream never broke up, at speeds up to 66 mph, while the “half-rate” stream did freeze several times, though it fixed itself after about 10 seconds. Samsung also switched to a simulcast of the same programming on Ch. 38 to demonstrate a Single Frequency Network (SFN) in action in Las Vegas, which appeared to work well.

With two competing technologies, standardization of a mobile DTV system remains an issue, particularly since consumer electronics manufacturers need a commitment to a certain volume of handsets before ramping up production. But the in-band transmissions don’t affect existing DTV reception and theoretically don’t require FCC approval for operation, so a formal standard might not be necessary.

When asked if a stamp of approval from the Open Mobile Video Coalition, whose stations currently reach 85% of total TV households and cover 49 of 50 markets, would be enough for LG to build MPH handsets, Wayne Luplow, a vice president with LG’s Zenith subsidiary, was very quick to respond.

“Less than that would drive us forward,” says Luplow. “But there is no magic number.”