Can analog mobile TV predict digital success?

An August 2009 report from In-Stat may provide some guidance for stations looking to enter the mobile TV business. The report focuses exclusively on analog delivery of mobile television. Even so, the authors claim it may offer hints at how digital mobile television may be used.

Digital platforms

Today, there are more than 100 mobile TV services using digital (3G) platforms to deliver video. Virtually all charge subscriptions. The rates charged vary widely and are primarily dependent upon the geographical location of the service. Not surprising, the less-developed countries have lower rates than do areas like North America.

Even where digital broadcast delivery is used, there is no worldwide standard. Examples include MediaFLO and MobiTV used in the United States, CMMB (China Multimedia Mobile Broadcast) in China and T-DMB (Terrestrial-Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) in South Korea. The European Union has settled on DVB-H, and Japan will use a variant of ISDB called 1seg.

The divergence of standards has created a huge headache for handset makers. The cost advantages of quantities of scale are reduced, and consumers end up paying more for handsets. Even so, one-chip solutions are being developed to ease the transition.

Mobile adoption

One key takeaway from the In-Stat report for U.S. broadcasters is that that the number of viewers of mobile digital free-to-air services will be greater than that of the number of subscription-based mobile digital viewers. This means that mobile television represents a significant opportunity for U.S. television stations.

Currently, all U.S.-delivered mobile TV is subscription-based. Service providers will be loath to give up any of that revenue, so they may be disinclined to provide OTA reception capability in their handsets. Combined with the fact that in North America, service providers subsidize the purchase cost of phones, they have a huge amount of control over what features are enabled in those phones. Cell phone companies could decide to not support OTA delivery simply by not offering phones equipped with an OTA receiver. Or they could provide OTA-enabled phones, but at much higher prices.

American consumers have been conditioned to believe that most cell phones should be free or cost more than $99. So, if an OTA reception-enabled phone costs perhaps three times that amount, it is unlikely to be successful.

However, at least two other factors enter into play. The first is that consumers may find OTA reception as the next “must have” service. An inexpensive MPH-enabled phone could be the next iPhone-like runaway success. If so, as soon as one vendor provides an enabled phone, the others will have to follow.

Second, because service providers do not have to build any backend support, there is minimal expense to provide the feature. The downside for cell phone companies is that they could lose what few video-enabled customers they now have.

The chip technology will soon be widely available. Several companies are already offering a single chip solutions, including: Analog Devices, GCT Semiconductor, Frontier Silicon, LG Electronics, Mavrix, Maxscend, Nexilion, Telechips, Siano Mobile Silicon, MediaPhy, Texas Instruments and NXP Semiconductor. Newport semiconductor offers a DVB-H receiver and is planning to be the second company (after Qualcomm) to offer a MediaFLO receiver.

An EETimes article quoted Alon Ironi, CEO of Siano Mobile Silicon. When asked about the Qualcomm solution, Ironi said, "Qualcomm got nothing out of it, since both Verizon and AT&T are almost hiding it from the consumer." The monthly subscription fee for MediaFLO isn't cheap, costing $15. The article says cell phone companies refuse to make MediaFLO-based mobile TV features available on their most popular phones.

When asked about ATSC-M/H, Siano’s Ironi noted that ATSC-M/H may have a chance to succeed, but “its infrastructure will remain a problem.” He noted that while digital broadcasting is already available in the United States via the ATSC standard, mobile reception will require the build out of a substantial infrastructure to make it mobile friendly. "When we ask who is going to build it, everyone goes silent on you," Ironi said.

Mobile TV usage

Now, let’s see how analog TV is being used. The goal will be to see if we can predict how a digital implementation might be accepted.

The writers of In-Stat’s survey admit being surprised at some of the usage data. Pundits have suggested that primarily because of the small screens, users would limit their uses to short-form videos, often called snacking. The In-Stat survey shows exactly the opposite.

Respondents consumed a wide range of content, including movies. A chart showing the types of programming consumed is shown in Figure 1 to the right. News was the second most viewed type of content in two of the three geographical areas.

In some areas surveyed, 40 percent of viewers watch mobile TV daily. Two-thirds of viewers watch for at least 30 minutes when they do tune in.

U.S. broadcasters can learn at least two things from the In-Stat survey.

First, mobile TV viewers enjoy the experience and will use free OTA mobile TV, if available. To reemphasize a point from the report, “the number of viewers of mobile digital free-to-air services will be greater than the number of subscription-based mobile digital viewers.” To paraphrase a familiar movie line, “If you build it, they will come.”

Second, viewers will watch longer-form video. Entertainment and news may not need to be chopped up into short segments. This makes delivery easier for broadcasters as they may be able to use current news and weather casts without significant alterations.

There are two takeaway points for the broadcast industry. The first is that ATSC-M/H receivers must be inexpensive and readily available. And, a nationwide infrastructure needs to be built. Failure of either effort could jeopardize the adoption of ATSC-M/H as a successful business model.