Smooth Ride so Far for Mobile DTV

Broadcasters: Development of mobile-DTV standard going smoothly, on track for working system by early 2009.

Broadcasters said the development of a new digital-TV standard that will let them transmit video to cellular phones and other portable devices is going smoothly, and that they remain on track to have a working system in place by early 2009.

The creation of a new “Mobile-Handheld” (M-H) standard has drawn strong interest from both stations and technology vendors since it was officially started by the Advanced Television Systems Committee in May 2007.

The mobile-DTV-standards process got a significant boost in May when the two large consumer-electronics companies that submitted competing technical proposals to ATSC, LG Electronics and Samsung, agreed to work together on a joint system and avoid what could have been a protracted standards battle.

That compromise between LG and Samsung was driven largely by field evaluations conducted by the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a consortium of more than 800 stations committed to creating a mobile-DTV standard. According to a report the coalition delivered to the ATSC, trials in San Francisco and Las Vegas slightly favored the “MPH” technology created by LG in partnership with Harris over the A-VSB system developed by Samsung, Rohde & Schwarz and Nokia.

LG and Samsung subsequently submitted a joint proposal to the ATSC in early July, which mobile-DTV insiders said was basically the MPH system with a few minor tweaks.

CBS affiliate and Capitol Broadcasting station WRAL Raleigh, N.C., conducted successful informal tests of MPH last month, broadcasting two streams of mobile content alongside its HD programming to a handful of prototype receivers.

Pete Sockett, WRAL's chief engineer, conceded that his station's testing was decidedly unscientific, as he simply gave mobile handsets with MPH chips to station employees and told them to drive home to test the reception. But, he added, “It worked. It was pretty rock-solid within 25-30 miles of the transmitter. At 30-40 miles, it was intermittent. Over 40 miles away, we had a few successes, but that's where it dropped out.”

The OMVC plans to work with the ATSC to conduct more formal tests of the proposed joint LG/Samsung system -- tests that could be announced as soon as this month. A key factor in the testing will be interoperability between the transmission system's exciter, multiplexer and receiver. The coalition also enlisted research firm Horowitz Group to review mobile-TV implementations internationally in order to help inform it for consumer trials it is planning for early 2009.

While he didn't have an exact timetable for the interoperability testing, ATSC president Mark Richer said the industry should be able to ratify a formal mobile-DTV standard in the first or second quarter of 2009.

“We are on track and on schedule,” he added. “It's nice to say that, and hopefully, we stay that way.”

This month, members of the ATSC specialist group (“S4”) on mobile DTV should complete a working draft of the standard, some 800-900 pages in length, which they will meet to review in early September. Some parts of the draft standard are brand-new, while other parts are based on existing technologies such as established video- and audio-compression schemes. It includes some specific broadcaster requirements, such as the ability to perform audience measurement and conditional-access functionality for pay TV services, and it is also intended to be updated with future versions.

On Sept. 25, the S4 group will present its draft to the larger Technology and Standards Group. It is likely to ask for the M/H draft to be raised to candidate-standard status, which could happen by mid-October. It could remain as such for anywhere from three months to one year, but a likely period of time is six months. The candidate-standard period is designed to encourage testing and experimentation by vendors to work out any kinks before a standard is presented to the general ATSC membership to be formally ratified, which requires the support of two-thirds of its membership.

“This working draft then becomes sort of the proving ground for the standard,” said Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group and chair of the S4 group. “That's when third-party implementers get a view of the standard and begin to build for it.”

Samsung vice president John Godfrey said that in order to build retail products for the holiday 2009 season, his company and other manufacturers would like to have a final standard by early next year, or assurances that broadcasters were going to be using the standard.

“This is like anything in the television industry,” Godfrey added. “There's got to be some sort of coordination between the people sending the service and the manufacturers making devices to receive the service. That said, there is more momentum on ATSC Mobile-Handheld than I've ever seen on anything else.”

Sockett and other WRAL testers were impressed by the picture quality of the first-generation MPH system, and he is excited about the prospects for a commercial mobile DTV service. He said, “Everybody who saw it got the difference between typical cell-phone video and what this is capable of.”