EU lines up for mobile TV standards war

The old standards issue has risen again. Should legislators set technical standards or leave it to the market to decide? This month, the topic in the
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The old standards issue has risen again. Should legislators set technical standards or leave it to the market to decide? This month, the topic in the spotlight is the blueprint for mobile television in Europe. The European Commission (EC) has been looking at the reasons for slow takeoff of mobile television in Europe. With many countries in the Asia-Pacific region already running commercial services, the EC fears Europe could get left behind in an important consumer electronics growth area.

The EC cites three issues: agreement on technical standards, allocation of spectrum and the existence of a regulatory environment that will encourage investment. I think spectrum is the most important, the lack of which makes the operation of a service impossible.

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Many countries are waiting for the “digital dividend” of the analog switch-off, which naturally adds years of delay before spectrum is freed. The EC says 2008 is a good year to roll out services because it would coincide with the Beijing Olympics and European Football Championships. Next year, however, is long before many states intend to switch off. European Union (EU) spectrum allocation is not currently coordinated between states, so this could add further complication near land borders. The EC would like a common band allocated to mobile television: UHF, with a fallback to L-band (1.5GHZ) if that is not possible.

The desire to agree to technical standards is a noble one. The economies of scale in manufacturing consumer devices for a market of 490 million people, as opposed to specific models for individual states with populations of 80 million or less, means that handsets will cost less. This could open the consumer base to a larger share of the population.

A common standard would also mean travelers could use their TVs anywhere in Europe. With several standards, operators could use different standards within the same state. Would we need a fistful of phones to watch all the services?

GSM and MPEG-2 are both examples of successful common standards. However, there are also a slew of other possible standards, including DVB-H, T-DMB and MediaFLO. One service in the UK uses DAB-IP, a pragmatic decision as spectrum is available for DAB.

Recently, the EC declared it intends to add DVB-H to its list of standards for communication networks. This means that the commission would require member states to encourage the use of DVB-H. The EC may come forward with proposals, if necessary and appropriate, to make DVB-H mandatory. The proponents of competing systems are not happy, because they want the market to decide. Digital technology makes multistandard systems easy to manufacture with only a small cost overhead.

Mobile operators have to weigh any increased cost of handsets against the flexibility of choosing a system that can be closely matched to their business needs, rather than satisfying a regulator. It should also be noted that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) wants technology neutrality.

I have an open mind about all this. There is no doubt that allowing common standards aids interoperability and leads to larger manufacturing volumes for consumer electronics manufacturers. This lowers prices, hence expanding the market.

On the other hand, standards can be seen as a straightjacket to innovation. Proprietary solutions are faster to market and can be adapted to suite different business models. Without Flash and Windows Media would we have seen the explosion of online video?

I agree with the EC in the encouragement of a recommended transmission standard, but the possible legislation to mandate a standard seems draconian. This is a business issue; it is very different from the management of spectrum to avoid cross-border conflicts.

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