ATSC mobile TV standard arrives, consumer devices lag

Fifty years ago, the Philco Safaripromised "TV anywhere" on a 2in screen. Looking like a squared-off potato in its leatherette-like cover, the Safari was the cover of the November Electronics Illustrated. What’s dismaying is that what was world-of-the-future stuff back then, still is — at least here in North America.

It turns out that Open Mobile Video Coalition executive director Anne Schelle was correct in her prediction to me a year ago that there wasn’t going to be too much market action around the ATSC mobile TV standard. Today, we have an official standard, a growing number of operators rolling out mobile TV and ATSC-M/H-compatible tuners and broadcast equipment. The only thing we don’t have is anything to watch mobile TV on. “In all of the U.S., there are 200 receivers, at most,” according to Jay Adrick, VP of broadcast communications at Harris.

But now, with the standards dust settling, we're solidly in the commercialization phase of mobile TV, Adrick says, and there’s a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “Right now, devices are in limited production from PIXTREE, LG, DTVInteractive and Dell,” he says. “Samsung just showed their first receiver. We're going to see devices roll out in the next year. [Mobile TV] systems in the U.S. are targeted at much more than handsets.”

Many of these devices will be external receivers and PC dongles, such as PIXTREE’s flash drive-size USB ATSC Mobile DTV Receiver. DTVInteractive is reportedly working with mobile TV player company iMovee on an ATSC mobile TV device. One accessory that interests Adrick because it lets consumers add mobile TV to mobile phones without involvement by carriers and handset makers comes from Korean set-top box company Valups. Combining a mobile TV tuner, WiFi transmitter and battery pack, the 3in by 5in receiver connects to WiFi-enabled handsets including iPhones, iPods and some other smartphones. Valups’ receiver is expected to hit retailer shelves early next spring.

But don’t rule carriers out of the free-to-air mobile TV game just yet, Adrick says. “I think you’re going to see some announcement between now and NAB that include carriers. There's a lot of interest by certain carriers.”

Who’s on the air?

Even if you have a device to watch mobile TV on, is there anything out there to watch? In the past year, more than 75 TV stations have indicated their intentions to add mobile TV, and some in major metropolitan areas — including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Omaha, NE, Philadelphia, Raleigh, NC, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C. — are already broadcasting.

“We have 23 stations on the air in the U.S. and Canada that are broadcasting with Harris equipment,” Adrick says. That includes TV pioneer WRAL in Raleigh and Omaha’s WOWT.

“WOWT is reporting good coverage and performance in vehicles as well as handhelds,” Adrick says. “[Gray Television Technology VP] Jim Ocon told me, ‘I drove into the underground garage, and the picture was still there.’ You can walk around Kenosha, WI, 40mi from Chicago, and watch TV [coming] from Chicago.”

Writing on the Wall?

Does growing availability of free-to-air mobile TV mean an inevitable decline for 3G mobile TV? One sign that carrier-delivered mobile TV may be heading for a downturn is recent news that the BBC canceled 3G mobile TV deployment plans, reportedly after a trial of the service generated little interest from viewers.