Delivering broadcast TV over WiMAX networks is a matter of combining the broadcast, unicast worlds

As a delivery mechanism for mobile video and data, WiMAX has a lot of potential. More than 50 countries throughout the world have built WiMAX networks, giving millions of people wireless access to the Internet and other data-heavy applications. It’s not surprising, then, that several companies are talking about delivering streaming video over WiMAX networks. A major challenge, however, has been the inability of these IP-based networks to handle large numbers of users accessing rich video streams at the same time.

A few companies are exploring solutions to this problem. One of them, UDcast, best known for its work on the DVB-H and DVB-SH mobile TV standards, is suggesting an approach that combines the best qualities of broadcast, unicast and multicast technologies to push WiMAX television to the mass market. David Richardson, UDcast’s VP of corporate and business development, sat down with the Mobile TV Update to explain his company’s WiMAX TV concept.

Mobile TV Update: How long had the concept of WiMAX TV been under development at UDcast before the company made it public?

David Richardson: We had been looking at a lot of wireless technologies for quite some time, and during a strategy session last August, the company chose WiMAX as one of the most promising technologies. While UDcast does not endorse any particular form of wireless technology, it does make informed business decisions to invest resources in what it considers the most promising technologies.

Mobile TV Update: What does UDcast consider promising about WiMAX?

David Richardson: We think the impetus behind it is very significant. Many companies are developing chipsets for this market and the standards are well-advanced. We think that spectrum allocation and regulatory issues are going to spur the market, and that the cost of the handset and the cost of the network infrastructure will go down. We also have some indications that the cost of operation and the cost of delivering will go down as well. On a worldwide basis, we think it’s an attractive place to be.

As for the people entering these markets, television is going to be a requirement. UDcast addresses two markets: mobile TV and enterprise data systems, where we do IP acceleration. So, when we look at these and at our WiMAX efforts, we seem to hit a sweet spot with both markets. UDcast is at the fulcrum of IP, broadcast and wireless technologies — that’s the expertise we have.

Mobile TV Update: What’s the basic concept behind WiMAX TV?

David Richardson: The concept is to set aside a fixed number of megabits per second for a bouquet of TV channels, and to use our technology, along with a broadcaster or mobile operator’s existing headend and encoding technology, to allow them to deliver TV programming to [WiMAX-enabled] devices.

We make a distinction between video, which is a data application, and television, which we see as a business application. We believe people aggregate around major channels. If you look at Verizon Wireless’s V CAST service for example, they have signed up FOX, NBC, ABC and CBS, because Pareto’s law of 80:20 applies: The majority of people want to see 20 percent of the content. The content providers will cater their content to reach the maximum audience, because that’s the business model that has proved itself. We want to address that with a technology solution, with a broadcast TV service that’s different from streaming video, VOD or YouTube snacking and things like that.

It’s not that we are not going to enable streaming video as such, but we want to go for mass audiences. The content providers and the broadcasters are very adept at tailoring content for mass audiences. The U.S. is a prime example. Look at “Larry King Live” on the East Coast and the West Coast. CNN knows the exact audiences it’s hitting when. And, it’s CNN’s business to do that and tailor the content because that’s how it gets the CPMs for their advertising.

So, we are following that business model. This is not to say that it’s not going to adapt and morph and get into a hybrid system where, yes, you will be able to download or stream content when you are, for example, waiting at the doctor’s office and you missed last night’s episode of your favorite show. You can stream that. But if everybody’s watching what’s happening on Wall Street today, they will go to CNN or Bloomberg at [the same time to view live content].

Mobile TV Update: And, obviously, broadcast can support large numbers of people viewing video at once.

Dave Richardson: Because of the technology of broadcasting, where you set aside bandwidth dedicated to a number of megabits per second, per channel, you can guarantee high-quality video and audio quality. With the 3 Italia DVB-H service in Italy, for example, nearly 3 million people have signed up for that service rather than for streaming video services because the quality of the service is better than they get on the Internet.

Also, because of statistical multiplexing, it’s possible to allocate different types of programming in real time. Statistical multiplexing is where you dynamically assign more bandwidth to a bandwidth-intensive stream of video than to one that is less bandwidth-intensive. Because you can do that in real time, you can guarantee the quality of the audio and video. The user feedback from 3 Italia, for instance, has shown that this is extremely important to users and, paradoxically, what they are most sensitive to is the audio. What tends to irritate them more is noise on the audio. We are used to artifacts and things on the video — we got used to that with the Internet. But if the audio breaks up, people get irritated. By having dedicated channels, we believe that you can deliver a better consumer experience and, therefore, a better service experience.

The main thing is to efficiently bring the primetime channels — the most popular channels — to the biggest audience. From a business point of view, that’s the biggest message. From a technology point of view, we want to do it efficiently and with the best quality of video and audio.

Mobile TV Update: What would be the primary infrastructure requirements of a WiMAX TV network?

David Richardson: UDcast provides software that can be integrated within the network infrastructure. We would see ourselves providing software modules to integrators and equipment manufacturers who provide these networks and build these networks. We see a sort of management station, a component in the ASN gateway, and another module in the base station. That’s what we anticipate at the moment — software modules that are integrated in other pieces of equipment. That’s how we work in DVB-H, and that’s how we are trying to work going forward. We are not a hardware company; we don’t make proprietary hardware.

Mobile TV Update: What would a handset manufacturer need to put into a handset to receive WiMAX TV signals?

David Richardson: The standards for this are just emerging now for WiMAX TV. We joined the WiMAX Forum and we hope to contribute to the working groups that will set the standards for WiMAX TV. We think, at the moment, that we will have an opportunity to contribute to those standards and then a handset manufacture will have to be compatible with them. There is a process in the WiMAX Forum structure for approving handsets, which is starting this year. We don’t see, at least in the first iteration, UDcast as contributing something to the handset per se. But going forward, we would certainly see ourselves contributing to that.

Mobile TV Update: If you were to pitch the WiMAX TV concept to a broadcaster, what would you say was the business case? It sounds like it would be that the broadcaster would not have to devote a huge amount of money to building up the WiMAX infrastructure, because he could use existing infrastructure.

David Richardson: Absolutely. Whatever the way they work today is how they would work in the future. What we are saying is that they can now address a new audience or maybe the same audience in situations where they couldn’t before. For example, let’s say you typically watch the FOX Business channel in the morning. If you commute by subway, then you can’t watch this channel, because you’re underground. Using WiMAX TV, FOX Business can make a relatively seamless transition for you so that you can continue watching their channel while you’re on the go.

Mobile TV Update: How would you pitch WiMAX TV to a mobile operator?

David Richardson: From a mobile operators’ perspective, it would be similar, certainly in the developed world. For example, in the U.S., I think TV [on a mobile device] is going to become a must-have application. You will not be able to address new audiences with new services and new devices if you don’t provide TV [on those devices]. At the moment, [mobile TV services] are mostly being thought of in terms of streaming video, but we don’t think that’s economical. I’ve read some studies that say to deliver a three- or four-minute clip of video at 15 frames per second, it costs around a dollar. Now, if you’re going to do that on WiMAX, it’s going to cost 10 cents.

Mobile TV Update: That’s a big cost difference.

David Richardson: Now, that’s one order of magnitude. Remember that we are still talking about an individual stream. If you introduce broadcast, you go down in orders of magnitude, so the cost will go down further. From a mobile operator’s point of view, if he wants to reach a mass market — I think the [existing U.S. mobile TV services] are charging around $15 a month today for these streaming services — and if everybody goes on and tries to view something at once, his network is going to fall over. He’s not going to be able to do it. But if it is broadcasting, he can. That’s one thing. I think TV is going to be a must-have application.

Second, you want to be able manage your service and make sure that your customers have the quality of service and the quality of audio and video they see on their home TV sets. The quality of the screens that the handset manufacturers are putting out is getting much better. But if it’s a pure IPTV type experience, it’s stuttering and the video is stalling, which irritates people. Broadcast will give you a much better quality of service. Operators want to be able to manage the channels and reach the most people with the most efficient amount of content for the lowest price. That’s how they acquire, retain audiences, reduce churn and participate in advertising. Without broadcast, they won’t achieve this.

Another challenge to operators right now is that broadcasters are looking at their own mobile video standards, such as A-VSB. So, the broadcasters are trying to address the mobile operator’s audience anyway. We think that’s why they will, whether it’s 3G, 4G or WiMAX TV, and they are going to have to bring a TV service to their market anyway, and we think that we can help them do that.

Mobile TV Update: How does UDcast plan to implement the WiMAX TV concept in the marketplace?

David Richardson: We will go to market the same as we have gone to market with other products. Our customers are network infrastructure builders such as Motorola, Harris, TANDBERG Ericcsson, Nokia Siemens and all of them want to build WiMAX networks. So, if they have a customer that wants a WiMAX network, we will be able to offer them products for it. It’s through partnerships and existing agreements that we have. We are also pursuing opportunities in the developing world. Many of these countries have the need to provide broadband access but don’t have a wired infrastructure, so they are leapfrogging the developed world in this area.

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