WASHINGTON The repurposing of broadcast television's most valued commodity—its program content—to new mobile devices such as smart phones, laptops, standalone video players and perhaps most significantly, vehicles of all shapes and sizes, could become the "next big thing" for both broadcasters and consumers by the end of this new year.
Setting off a chain of events already well underway was the November elevation of what is being branded "ATSC Mobile TV" to the status of a Candidate Standard. This next-to-final step is the end-result of years of industry consideration and would create a mobile television system fed strictly off local broadcasters' spectrum that would not have been possible in the analog era.
The process was accelerated (no doubt considerably) thanks to an agreement between chief competing proponents Samsung and LG in 2008 to collaborate on their respective proposals—a move which was quickly followed by the creation of a Special Interest Group by the Consumer Electronics Association to allow its 2,200 members to share information about the proposed specifications.
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The near-final scheme now undergoing final testing (and minor tweaking) permits the deployment of a technically efficient, robust mobile stream (usually a simulcast) to be transmitted from within a station's FCC-allotted DTV spectrum without causing interference to a licensee's other DTV services running concurrently, such as HD channels and/or SD multicasting.
"During the Candidate Standard stage we hope to get feedback from companies who are implementing the system," said ATSC President Mark Richer. "We do not expect to receive many suggestions to make major substantive changes in the specifications. However, given the length and complexity of the documents, it is likely we will receive many comments suggesting editorial changes in order to clarify the text."
Achieving Candidate Standard status also typically sends a clear message to all parties that the time to commence development of compatible devices and services can now get underway. And then it will be largely up to CE makers to devise as many different types of products using the ATSC Mobile TV standard as technology, creativity, capital, and the current economy will permit. [Supporters of the Candidate Standard are holding a special demonstration—sponsored by Harris, LG and Samsung—at a briefing at CES2009 in Las Vegas this week.]
This block diagram illustrates the path the ATSC signal takes to get to mobile devices.
The Open Mobile Video Coalition, a consortium of two dozen major broadcast groups pushing the ATSC standard, said between now and early summer it has plans for extensive interoperability testing and trials in various markets. Anne Schelle, OMVC's executive director, said the standard's "flexible system architecture" technically will support a wide array of options on various still-to-be-designed devices—including interactivity such as viewer polling and purchases, POD (Push on Demand), PPV, possibly EPG, and necessary storage capabilities.
"ATSC Mobile DTV is built around a highly robust transmission system that is carried in digital broadcast channels without any adverse impact on legacy receiving equipment," Schelle said. "Because mobile DTV is built on top of the existing digital broadcast television system, it's anticipated that the cost to broadcasters will be relatively small."
Timing may be crucial for any successful launch of the ATSC spec because the term "mobile TV" will not be a new one for many consumers. There are other forms of mobile video (most of it not live) currently in the market—notably from MobiTV, iTunes, MediaFLO, and all those hundreds of Web sites which offer video podcasts, often directly from the big four broadcast networks.
Charles Golvin, principal analyst for mobile technology at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., thinks the mobile environment is already confusing. "I think what does not confuse consumers is the difference between 'live' and 'on-demand' and the ATSC M/H content will very clearly be in the 'live' camp," he said. "There it will compete directly with Qualcomm's MediaFLO, which is preparing to significantly expand its footprint with the DTV transition." Golvin said the "free-to-air" mobile model has been very successful in some key markets like Japan, where penetration of TV-capable handsets far outstrips subscriber-based models.
OMVC's Schelle also emphasizes that because the Candidate Standard is a point-to-multi-point broadcast service, "It is not bandwidth-constrained like other current real-time mobile TV services. That means better quality for consumers [which] will be noticeable in terms of signal availability, as well as better picture quality and resolution." Also, ATSC's Richer adds, "The physical [RF] layer is unique because it must be backwards-compatible with the existing ATSC DTV system and provide high performance in a broadcast environment."
That "single point-to multi-point system" (the very definition of broadcasting itself) will be especially important when large user groups are in play, according to Jay Adrick, vice president for broadcast technology at Harris Corp. Harris (and some of its competitors) are already involved in talks with local stations about the hardware necessary for the new standard—such as encoders, multiplexers, encapsulation devices, exciters, as well as the creation of electronic service guides and content protection.
As an example, Adrick points to the night Barack Obama was elected president. "They had a quarter-of-a-million people or more in Grant Park in Chicago, yes?" Adrick said. "Let's say 100,000 of those people had mobile TV devices using the new broadcast standard [to watch Obama live]. No problem. But if those same people were using cellular-based devices for their mobile TV, you'd get about 40 or 50 devices on a cell and it would simply crash. Not so with a single point-to multi-point mobile system."
Technically speaking, however, being perceived as different from the rest of the mobile TV pack may not necessarily be a key objective for broadcasters. "Actually, one of our goals is to have many technologies be similar to other mobile TV systems in an effort to foster interoperability and to minimize time-to-market," said Richer, who had planned to make the entire text of the Candidate Standard available on the ATSC Web site (www.atsc.org) by New Year's.