Mobile DTV limps along at NAB

While the Mobile 500 Alliance and the Pearl LLC group of stations continue to make “soft” launch announcements (the latest being this summer in Seattle at KOMO-TV and in St. Paul, Minn. at KSTP)), and more stations (notably several CBS affiliates) have stated their intention to pursue some type of wireless strategy, the mood, especially among equipment vendors hoping to cash in, at the NAB Show was very different from a year ago. Proponents of Mobile DTV continue to beat the drum, but not quite as convincingly.

“We are very excited about the consumer product we’ve put together, because it is the natural next step for broadcast TV,” said Colleen Brown, chairwomen of the Mobile 500 Alliance Board of Directors and CEO of Fisher Communications (owners of KOMO-TV), “ and the natural next step for the evolution of spectrum.”

Manufacturers that make the required transmission equipment were clearly deemphasizing the technology in their exhibit booths. There was a Mobile DTV Pavilion—where both the Mobile Content Venture and the Mobile500 Alliance of stations showcased reception products—but the enthusiasm among the crowd in for a look and elsewhere on the exhibit show floor was clearly not there.

“We’re looking at the technology, but don’t plan to do anything until we start to see receivers in the market,” said Dan Billings, Director of Technology for Waterman Broadcasting, in Fort Myers Fla.

Another well-known Director of Engineering at a major station group was a bit blunter, although he asked that his name not be used. “I don’t think there’s any way we’re going to be able to replicate the footprint of the major Telcos,” he said. “Consumers are going to expect the service to work as ubiquitously as it does with their current cell phones. I don’t see that happening with the ATSC Mobile DTV standard.”

Indeed, there’s discussion among some broadcasters that are looking at alternative ways of distributing the signals to moving devices, including the COFDM transmission scheme that relies on multiple transmitters surrounding a market, as opposed to the singlestick approach being used with the ATSC standard.

Stations have cited the large number of Apple iPads and other tablets that can use a dongle (by such companies as Belkin and Elgato to receive Mobile DTV signals today. To date not many have been sold.

According to the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), 76 stations in 32 U.S. marketsare now on the air with Mobile DTV signals that let consumers receive station programming on mobile deviceswithout needing to access the Internet through WiFi or data wireless broadband networks.

According to Anne Schelle, Executive Director of OMVC, said Mobile DTV will reach more than 77 million households – or more than two thirds of all viewers in America – in the next twelve months. At the NAB show it was announced that four CBS’s-owned TV stations had agreed to join the various Mobile 500 initiatives, a big step considering the CBS network had been hesitant to get involved heretofore. The network announced that KTVT, in Dallas, WFOR, in Miami and KCAL, in Los Angeles will join the Pearl Group’s “Dyle initiative”­—developed to assure consumers that particular devices can receive the Mobile DTV broadcasts­­—later this year.

In a statement, CBS TV Station President Peter Dunn said, “The advent of digital television has been great for viewers and we are pleased to support these initiatives with the hope that they will help us to do an even better job of serving our audience through the delivery of our broadcasts to mobile devices.”

For their part, manufactures are thinking mobile devices, however in the form of urging broadcasters to integrate social media traffic into their on-air broadcasts. For them, the anticipated windfall of new revenue for transmitters, encoders and other technology has yet to materialize.

Broadcasters appear split on the eventual success of the service—even those who continue to promote its value to the American public.

“We have to rethink what we’re doing with Mobile DTV and understands how important spectrum is to any type of mobile service,” said Mark Aitken, Vice President of Advanced Technology for Sinclair Television Group and a big (and early) proponent of the technology. “The ATSC standard might not be the best option for serving the public with a reliable mobile service, but we’ll have to wait and see. Sinclair is committed to Mobile DTV because it holds a lot of promise for things like emergency alerting and expanding local stations’ reach with their audiences. I wish the industry was further along with this than it is, and there are several non-technical issues with this [such as content rights], but I’m not proclaiming the death of Mobile DTV.”

Terrestrial broadcasters are running out of time if they want Mobile DTV to be successful to be with consumers. The somber mood at NAB, and the lack of any “hard” launch dates this year reflected that.

Watch Phil Kurz interview with Colleen Brown and Brian McHale about the Mobile 500 Alliance from NAB 2012.