European broadcasters see promise in new mobile
Television on mobiles has caught the attention of broadcasters and mobile network operators. They are busy this year conducting trials and launching full-scale services.
Professor Ulrich Reimers of Braunschweig Technical University in Germany presented a paper at NAB2006 outlining his research of mobile TV services. He is currently involved with DVB-H and its deployment in Germany, but he also noted that T-DMB, the technology developed and implemented in South Korea, has good potential in Europe, too.
He notes that existing mobile phone technologies have severe limitations. Mobile media networks should provide sufficient capacity for quasi live audio and video at a quality suitable to PDAs, rather than providing mobile phones with audio at near-CD quality. Users should expect a downstream data rate between 200kb/s and 400kb/s, as opposed to the current rate of 64kb/s mobile phones provide.
The problem with current mobile point-to-multipoint transmission is that it's not broadcasting. In other words, every mobile receiver must be provided with its own receive bandwidth. In cases where many consumers attempt to consume the same data at the same location, a provider might run out of bandwidth. In a universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS) cell, the maximum data rate for all the users is about 2Mb/s. This means 16 services at 64kb/s, eight services at 128kb/s or three services at 256kb/s will exhaust a cell's capacity, preventing any point-to-point traffic. Network providers are unlikely to allow that to happen. Reimers suggested that this is why many mobile operators have decided that they may be better off with broadcast networks such as DVB-H.
DVB-H and DAB-IP trials
The UK trials of both DVB-T and DAB-IP showed a demand for a full-scale offering of multichannel television to mobiles. In a DVB-H trial conducted by Arqiva and O2 in Oxford, 83 percent of consumers expressed satisfaction with the service, which offered 16 branded TV channels. Seventy-six percent said they'd subscribe for a year at €15 a month. But consumers also made clear that 16 channels was the minimum number they'd want, and the majority wanted many more.
BT Movio conducted a trial of DAB-IP, which can only use 20 percent to 30 percent of the DAB spectrum assigned for data use in the UK. Therefore, it can only provide four or five video channels per DAB multiplex. It does, however, add access to 50 DAB radio channels.
The trial revealed that digital radio was more popular than television. Consumers used radio 50 percent more than television. This worked out to 95 minutes a week of radio listening vs. 66 minutes of TV viewing.
Both the Arqiva/O2 and BT Movio trials showed that consumers want full simulcast television-to-mobile handsets rather than short-form TV snacks. The second most popular place to view mobile content turned out to be in the home, which suggests that mobile television could be the ultimate route to personal television.
BT Movio launched its UK commercial service with Virgin Mobile in October. The initial TV lineup includes BBC One, ITV1, Channel 4 and E4. The service combines live television, DAB digital radio, a seven-day program guide and red-button interactivity for mobile phones.
At IBC2006, BT Movio indicated that DAB-IP was just the start. The company's technical director, Martin Coggin, said the company would add more TV channels when another DAB multiplex joins the service. He also said that Virgin's Lobster 700 phone would act as a PVR to record mobile content.
Emma Lloyd, managing director for BT Movio, said that the company chose DAB-IP because it was the only format in the UK with available spectrum. Spectrum for the DVB-H format has yet to be allocated in the UK. However, Lloyd said BT Movio would add DVB-H capability to its handsets within 18 months if spectrum could be allocated and demand was sufficient.
UK regulator Ofcom is now considering what use will be made of the TV spectrum freed up by the analog switchoff in 2012. Its digital dividend report is due by the end of 2006.
Stella Creasey, head of TV research at the BBC, said the BBC had taken part in many of the trials to determine what kinds of content would appeal to customers and how the network should best respond to the interest in mobile television. The network sees mobile television as a great opportunity to extend access to its content. Even so, it is clear that the main motivation for those using mobile television is to kill time when in transit or waiting.
The BBC experimented by making 30-second episodes of last season's "Doctor Who." These episodes, named Tardisodes, were available as free downloads to consumers. The Tardisodes acted as tasters for the next episode. While take-up on mobile phones was limited, 2.7 million downloads were made over broadband. Creasey noted that because of current technical limitations of mobile video, there's a limited appetite for mobile television.
Creasey said the BBC doesn't yet know the right editorial solutions for mobile television. What the BBC does know is that the take-up by the young audience was promising, which is important because this is the hardest audience for TV broadcasters to reach.
BBC research showed that 36 percent of the TV audience for "Doctor Who" was under 35 years of age. Fifty-six percent of those who downloaded the Tardisodes on broadband were under 35. And, of those who downloaded “Doctor Who” Tardisodes to their mobile phones, 74 percent were under 35.
There is no doubt that mobile television could strengthen the younger audience's connection with the BBC's program brands. Creasey said the barriers to take-up are similar to the ones for interactive television and the early days of the Internet. Users are fearful of the pricing models, and they feel the content offering is too limited. But these problems aren't insurmountable.
At a recent EBU seminar on broadcast quality, mobile phone displays came under scrutiny. Nokia senior research manager Miska Hannuksela offered evidence from tests of different resolutions and frame rates, with various video codecs and configurations for IP datacasting over DVB-H.
Resolution and rates tested included 176 × 144 at 128kb/s, 320 × 240 at 384kb/s and 400 × 224 at 768kb/s. Nokia compared these two resolutions using two frame rates, 15fps and 30fps. The faster frame rate was of course better for rapid content, but 320 × 240 at 15fps might prove more practical for mobile phone use.
Common intermediate format (CIF) gave the best results for the first and second examples. Hannuksela demonstrated two mobile devices, the Nokia 6630 and N93, to illustrate how optimizing video quality for different devices makes a difference. The Nokia 6630 used quarter-CIF (QCIF) at 176 × 144, while the N93's 2.4in screen used QVGA at 320 × 240.
Hannuksala noted that the tests also included altering the audio bit rate, which made a key difference in the customer experience. Tests showed that a small increase in audio bit rate can produce a far greater perceived value than an equivalent increase in video bit rates.
The Italian scene
Italy recently launched DVB-H services. It began in June 2006 with three mobile providers, including H3G, Tim and Vodafone, in addition to broadcasters Mediaset, RAI and Sky.
According to RAI head of research Alberto Morello, the product sales for DVB-H products and services should peak during the time leading up to Christmas. Take-up in Italy is already showing promise, and mobile television looks like it will be an important addition to the country's broadcast landscape. Regulation of mobile television in Italy is under review.
Mediaset's service is a joint venture between the broadcaster and two mobile operators. Another of the DVB-H providers, H3G, is a mobile operator that bought and digitized an existing local analog TV network. In this model, broadcasters join as content providers only, while the mobile network operator serves as the DVB-H network operator, does its own content aggregation and provides the customer support and billing service.
The H3G service launched with 15 TV channels, which include three RAI channels, four Sky channels, a Mediaset channel and a music channel. It also carried live and exclusive transmission of the FIFA 2006 World Cup in Germany and has a contract for the football championship Italian Serie.
The pricing policy is interesting. Mobile television is available for €29 a month, or €99 for six months. Other mobile TV/phone packages sell for €49 a month. This includes one hour a day of free calls and 1GB a month of Internet navigation. Subscribers were given the choice between two free handsets, with 120,000 handsets distributed in the first six weeks.
Consultant Dermot Nolan sees the rapid interest in mobile television in Italy as a positive sign and is enthusiastic about the technology's future prospects. At IBC2006, Nolan reviewed aspects of competing formats, including Qualcomm's MediaFLO format, which has taken a lead in the United States. Qualcomm bought spectrum from the FCC, and U.S. telco Verizon has committed to use the format for mobile TV service.
In the UK, BSkyB has begun a trial with Arqiva to test the performance of MediaFLO technology. The trial will broadcast 10 Sky channels to customized consumer devices.
Nolan identified "seven pillars of perfection" that need to be in place if mobile television is to be a success:
- high-quality service;
- excellent indoor service;
- long-lasting batteries;
- pictures viewable in daylight;
- the availability of big brands;
- mobile exclusive content; and
- handsets at mass market prices.
Early days for mobile television
Reimers suggests that we are just at the beginning of mobile television. He believes that the next step might be to integrate broadcast and mobile networks, forming some kind of hybrid networks. These, he noted, could produce entirely new business models, which result in services well beyond television as we know it.
Nick Radlo writes about emerging TV technologies.