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Broadcasters banding together to stimulate wireless DTV service

With competition from major wireless content providers firmly entrenched and the government looking to reclaim spectrum for its proposed national broadband plan, the terrestrial broadcast industry recognizes the immediate need to roll out new services based on the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV standard. The standard allows broadcasters to use part of their allotted 6MHz (19.4Mb/s) of spectrum for such wireless services while protecting stations’ original DTV transmission equipment investment.

After a number of isolated field trials in markets across the country, several groups are now working together to reach content carriage and other agreements to get local station content to portable devices by early next year.

At the upcoming Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) show in January, nine major TV station groups will officially announce a new initiative code-named the “Pearl Project,” under the premise that there’s strength in numbers. Collectively, the group will conduct tests and work on marketing the service to consumers. As a group, they’ll also have the necessary clout to reach deals with carriers, receiver manufacturers, retailers, programmers and advertisers.

The initial nine groups participating in the Pearl Project are Belo, Cox, Gannett, Hearst Television, Ion Media, Media General, Scripps, Post-Newsweek and Raycom Media. Others are sure to join in as well.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) — which includes some 800 stations, including all of the broadcasters listed above — has been championing the monetary and social (e.g., emergency alert messaging) value of a wireless service that delivers hyperlocal content. (A February 2008 report by the NAB stated that mobile DTV simulcast of stations' primary broadcast service would someday generate $2 billion in annual revenues.) OMVC representatives, like Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, say that aside from the potential revenue mobile DTV services could generate, the looming spectrum reclamation issue should stimulate broadcasters to launch wireless service sooner than later.

“It’s clear that the government wants this wireless initiative to succeed, so it’s behooves broadcasters to become part of the solution by establishing a wireless prescience in their markets as soon as possible,” Aitken said. “While many people are talking about video service, data services are also part of the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV landscape and could bring value, in the form of wireless broadband, to unserved rural markets.”

He said the broadcast industry is looking to the newly adopted ATSC Mobile DTV Standard A/153 as a way to reach more viewers and generate new revenue via real-time programming, emergency alerts and interactive services displayed on mobile devices like laptop computers, in-car entertainment systems and cell phones.

The CEA is hosting broadcast equipment vendors and consumer electronics manufacturers in Washington, D.C., next week to demonstrate mobile DTV transmission gear and various consumer electronics devices that will also be on display at the CES 2010 conference in Las Vegas.

Thus far, the challenge has been getting ATSC M/H chip-enabled CE products into the hands of consumers in the various markets that these local broadcasters serve. Working with LG Electronics and Samsung to develop the necessary receiver chips has been slow to materialize. Perhaps more promising for the time being, a "bridge" device the size of a pack of cigarettes has been developed that can receive mobile DTV signals and then retransmit them via Wi-Fi networking. This will allow smart phones, laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices to display broadcast content without requiring a built-in chip.

The basic equipment needed to begin broadcasting mobile video services via the ATSC Mobile DTV spec includes program encoders, a multiplexer, an electronic services guide (ESG) server and a compatible DTV transmission exciter. Most of the pieces are readily available from transmission equipment venders like Axcera, Grass Valley, Harris and Rohde & Schwarz. All have announced field-tested systems that adhere to the ATSC's new specification.