For a while, it appeared the Mobile DTV Pavilion at this year's NAB show was, in reality, a geocache. In order to find it, it seemed one needed to sign up for the NAB version of a GPS treasure hunt. However, if one perservered and looked long enough, the Mobile DTV Pavillion actually did exist. That's not to say that you would have felt rewarded by all that effort.
No, what was found was what appeared to be an uncoordinated collection of seven or eight loosely-related companies and organizations, all tucked into an obscure area of one of the lesser-visited exhibit halls.
For a technology that has been so hyped previously at both NAB and CES shows, this once promising new broadcast application appears now to be orphaned and struggling. To say the lack of prominence was hugely disappointing would be a gross understatement. Of the several times I stopped by the pavilion, on one occasion there was not a single other visiting soul there, and half of the stands at the pavilion weren't even staffed. During a second visit, still not all of the stands were staffed, but at least there was one other person walking around. Actually, the stands really didn't need staffing. A recording with the same promises and commitments from last year would have sufficed.
The erstwhile mobile DTV iPad dongle, promised last year, was once again promised to be available later this year. Prototypes of standalone, pocket-sized portable receivers and receiver cell phone combo units from shows past were all there, once again, in protoype form. Productization of these devices continues to be a moving target as discussions with vendors resulted in statements of availability by June, September or the end of 2012. Basically, it was a replay of 2011.
Six years since S9
It's hard to believe six years have passed since the ATSC's S9 working group meetings from which a specification emerged that ultimately embraced mobile DTV. In attendance for a consulting client at the time, it was interesting for me to observe the advocates of two different proposed technical approaches — A-VSB and MPH — as each side pitched its respective technologies for adoption.
As occurs with most standardization processes, ultimately, a compromise was achieved, and the ATSC-M/H standard was adopted. In between the compromise and acceptance of the final standard, a rather lengthy period of testing was designated. It was during this period that I raised concerns over the length of the process.
Believing strongly there was a finite window of market opportunity for mobile video, the danger would be it would close before the broadcast industry got out of the starting gate. As productization and commercialization (in themselves processes of some length) could only proceed after a standard was adopted, the danger was a lengthy period of testing and evaluation, combined with the typical glacial speed of committee workings, would result in missing the market. Surprisingly, it turns out the long pole in the water has been the commercialization and not the standardization process. Mea culpa, ATSC.
It's been more than two years since the Mobile Content Venture (MCV), a joint activity comprised of a number of station groups, FOX and NBC among others, has been announced. Over two years, and it is still not possible to dial into Dyle. (Dyle is the name designated by MCV for its mobile content service.) Meanwhile, the Mobile500 Alliance, another group of broadcasters promising mobile content services, has proudly announced its second-generation mobile service. Second-generation? I guess we all somehow missed the first.
I have always been a great believer in the appeal of mobile entertainment to consumers. I was a strong advocate of it during many years at Sony. Broadcasters today should participate in that opportunity, but Mobile DTV in this era of “Business @ the Speed of Thought” has taken too long to get to market. Frustratingly, it still isn't there, shown by yet another NAB promising that “it is coming.”
While broadcasters may have some exclusivity rights for various content, the value of those rights continues to drop dramatically. Consumers today are purchasing and downloading viewing apps, investing dollars in available portable media platforms and services, and investing themselves in their personal viewing behavior development.
So, while not declaring Mobile DTV dead, it is gasping on life support. And, if the industry doesn't deliver its Mobile DTV promise this year, it won't take a CSI team to make a death determination.
Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.
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