The race begins

Broadcasters at this year's NAB show were formally introduced to yet another approach at using a portion of the DTV stream to deliver video and data to mobile and handheld devices. Harris and LG introduced a system they have given the moniker MPH — an acronym for mobile, pedestrian and handheld.

At NAB2007, the companies indicated that they would not go through the long and drawn out process associated with ATSC standardization. Instead, they plan to market the standard directly to the broadcast community. Standards be damned? A marketplace decision? Evidently not.

Taking the fast track

The post-NAB plans seem a bit more conventional but also take into account rapidly moving business realities. The post-NAB strategy is to dual-track MPH, which means readying it for the market while simultaneously pursuing the standards-body process through the ATSC.

The plans could be the result of an overzealous booth staff demonstrating MPH, or they could be the effect of broadcast customers long steeped in the tradition of technology standards feeling uncomfortable with solely a marketplace decision. (Anyone recall the FCC debacle of the AM stereo marketplace decision?) Maybe it was a combination of both.

Critically, Harris and LG think the market for the delivery of broadcast and other video content to mobile, portable and handheld devices is moving quickly. Ostensibly, they see a danger in the normal timeline of a purely traditional approach of standards committees, subcommittees, lengthy technical evaluations and the ever-present, behind-the-scenes political machinations.

The danger is that during the several years it would take for the process to result in an adopted standard and to produce exacting technical documents and descriptions, the actual business opportunity will pass broadcasters. Thus, the parallel approach is to push for fast-tracking at the standards level while simultaneously moving forward with the market rollout.

For MPH, time is of the essence. And this line of thought appears to be consistent with many broadcasters' views. The objectives of the recently formed Open Mobile Video Coalition include accelerating new technology and solutions as well as facilitating a rapid and smooth standardization process within the ATSC. Just prior to this year's NAB, nine station groups representing almost 300 stations in 49 of the top 50 markets chartered the coalition.

Where the interest lies

It's not just commercial broadcasters that are interested. The public television sector has been an early adopter of DTV technology and digital content distribution.

Recently, public television broadcasters have been involved in approaches to use a portion of their DTV capabilities for first responder and emergency alert communications systems. To that end, they have entered into joint projects with the Department of Homeland Security to deliver this invaluable capability. Here too, the MPH partners see potential for their technology to assist in fulfilling the public television sector's goals to be a resource in times of emergency.

From a supplier perspective, Harris and LG's strategy for the market seems reasonably sound: Initially develop a lab platform, demonstrate and field test it, and ultimately deliver complete systems to customers shortly after NAB2008. Their comprehensive approach calls for the delivery of a workflow-oriented system complete with traffic and scheduling. Broadcasters must decide, however, how much of that valuable 19.38Mb/s bandwidth they can devote to a mobile TV service. Delivery of a 1Mb/s payload, for example, costs 4Mb/s of digital pipe.

Will the ATSC respond in time?

In any event, a mobile standard will facilitate improved emergency communications capabilities and will allow broadcasters to participate in a huge new market. Market researchers Frost & Sullivan and IDC project the mobile video market will exceed $1.5 billion by 2009.

Today, we live in an era that moves at the speed of thought. The standards bodies are in danger of being left in the dust. Whether it is MPH, A-VSB or another technology, the question is: Can the ATSC respond quickly enough, or will the broadcasters' mobile video opportunity crash and burn?

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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