Mobile TV at the NAB Show: An Update

At last year’s NAB convention, nine of the largest broadcast groups representing 281 TV stations formally announced the formation of the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) as an industry alliance to promote the development of mobile digital broadcast television in close partnership with ATSC and NAB.

The organization lost no time in conveying a sense of urgency. A month later OMVC wrote a letter to ATSC president Mark Richer requesting “that you place... the highest priority on the development and ratification of an open ATSC-M/H standard.”

Spurred by the possiblity of generating extra revenue in a challenging and rapidly changing broadcast landscape, an additional 19 station groups had joined OMVC by July, 2007, boosting its representation to 422 stations. The coalition was also joined by APTS, which represents an additional 361 public stations.

Just how much revenue? In January of this year a report commissioned and released by NAB declared that “broadcast television could reap an additional $2 billion in annual revenue by 2012 delivering content to mobile and handheld devices if an industry standard is adopted and technology deployed quickly.” This assumes that an industry-accepted ATSC standard for mobile DTV is released by early 2009 — right around the time of the analog shutoff — and that “delaying the adoption of a standard will dramatically impact the revenue potential for both local and network broadcasters in a negative way.”

(click thumbnail)So the pressure is on, and several manufacturers are vying to develop systems that will be adopted as the standard. The many contenders developing them have coalesced into three groups: a partnership between LG and Harris is pushing its MPH (mobile-pedestrian-handheld) technology; a similar alliance between Samsung and Rohde & Schwarz is promoting the system known as A-VSB (advanced-vestigial Sideband); and a third contender for a mobile DTV standard is formed by Thomson and Micronas.

At January’s CES show, OMVC announced a series of consumer trials for later this year to determine viewer behavior and preferences with regard to mobile video use. Prior to those trials, OMVC began its independent demonstrations of viability (IDOV) on February 18.

IDOV’s purpose is “to set a high bar that will make it clear to ATSC that the technologies in all liklihood could be commercialized in time for deployment,” explains Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and chairman of ATSC’s Mobile/Handheld Standardization Group, “and to establish a concensus that this isn’t just something that looks good specification-wise, but rather that it is reliable and deployable as hardware, and performs as expected in the field.”

Just before or during the NAB Show, ATSC expects to report those activities’ preliminary findings, says Aitken. However, that doesn’t mean the results will be complete, as some of the laboratory testing may continue beyond that date.

“The detailed, full report won’t be made to the OMVC board, and then passed thru the OMVC board to ATSC, until mid-May,” says Aitken. He cautions that the word “test” should be avoided in describing the ongoing work because it means something very specific within the engineering community. “Let’s call it ‘demonstration activities,’” he says. “The real testing of the mobile system will happen inside of ATSC toward the third quarter of this year.”

Aitken further notes that the IDOV activity — which is now taking place in San Francisco, but will later shift to Las Vegas — will help answer some questions relating to the transmitter power needed for mobile DTV.

“This process will enable the collection of data that will give the beginnnings of a firm understanding of the amount of power a broadcaster needs to reach mobile and handheld devices with a viable service,” says Aitken. “Many stations are operating at the low-end limits of their power authorization,” he notes, because to hit 80 percent of their audience all they need to do is reach cable and satellite headends. “In the case of wireless, that low-power approach doesn’t necessarily translate to easy delivery to small antennas in portable devices.”

As for the consumer trials, no fixed date has been set, but Aitken believes they’ll begin in the third quarter of this year. “Those trials are dependent on consumer devices, and those are just beginning to show up, with second-generation chips from Samsung and first-generation chips from LG,” Aitken explains.

Manufacturers are hardly waiting. Harris, for example, has announced it plans to demonstrate an MPH-ready exciter at the NAB convention that will enable broadcasters to deliver video content to mobile devices in addition to standard and HD digital content to home TV receivers. The new exciter, says Harris, will allow local broadcasters to multiplex all over-the-air TV services into a single transport stream.