FLO TV Shutdown Impact Could Be Far-Reaching

After several months of rumors that it was ending its FLO TV mobile/handheld TV service, Qualcomm this week confirmed it would stop direct to consumer sales of receivers, effectively shutting it down. As previously reported in RF Report, Qualcomm was attempting to sell its FLO TV service and the 700 MHz spectrum (mostly Channel 55) that it uses in many markets.

A shutdown of FLO TV would have an impact beyond the loss of service to people that already bought FLO TV receivers or enjoy it on specially equipped cell phones offered. First, and foremost, are the TV transmitter engineers that left TV broadcasting to design, build and maintain the massive FLO TV network of 50 kW Channel 55 transmitters that FLO has installed across the country. I hope that Qualcomm takes good care of them.

Next to be impacted are the manufacturers that supply transmitters and antennas for the FLO network. You have probably noticed a big increase in the number of 700 MHz antennas on display at NAB in the past few years. While much of the network has been built (and I hope, paid for), future business and service will suffer.

As an upside (should the shutdown occur), the FLO TV transmitters are solid-state units and many should be able to be used on broadcast TV channels. The exciters may even be able to be converted to ATSC or ATSC MH with a firmware upgrade. If surplus FLO TV transmitters start appearing on the market, it could be just in time for their deployment as part of distributed transmission systems to improve Mobile DTV coverage in terrain shadowed areas.

FLO TV distributes Mobile TV programming from ESPN, CNN, CBS, NBC, Fox and others. If the service should end, options for Mobile TV distribution will be limited to streaming over the Web, (which may become less attractive as carriers eliminate unlimited bandwidth plans), ATSC Mobile DTV (which suffers from a shortage of receivers), or Dish's yet-to-be-launched Mobile TV service using Channel 56 spectrum it purchased.

Qualcomm was a pioneer in Mobile TV with the FLO TV service, and just because it hasn't succeeded doesn't mean that such service is doomed. After all, CP/M was one of the first operating systems for Intel microprocessors and its demise didn't mean the end of the PC or Intel.

Broadcasters interested in ATSC Mobile DTV need to look into the areas where FLO TV succeeded and those where it failed. The delay in the DTV transition limited FLO TV's ability to get signals on the air as soon as it wanted. Worse, there were—and still are—very few devices available to receive FLO TV (sound familiar?) The cell phones that had FLO TV capability weren't the most popular models and while the company offered a stand-alone portable receiver, most people don't want to carry multiple portable devices instead of a single "smartphone." Netbook and notebook users had no option for viewing FLO TV. When you add in a subscription fee, it isn't surprising that FLO had trouble attracting users.

What will it take for broadcasters to succeed where Qualcomm's FLO TV appears to have failed?

Assuming broadcasters will put Mobile DTV on the air in a reasonable period of time and offer programming people want to watch (see the article on the OMVC Washington DC Showcase elsewhere in this week's RF Report), the most critical element—in my opinion—will be ease of use. This means making the service available for devices they are likely to buy for uses beyond watching TV. It also means making it easy for viewers to access the service—no (or at least easy) sign-up, enough free channels to make it worth the extra hardware cost and attractive subscription content for which they will be willing to pay a little extra.

I think that device availability may be the single biggest hurdle.

Remember when accessing Wi-Fi meant buying a separate PCMCIA card or, later, a USB dongle, then finding the right driver to make it work without disabling something else, and then finding that the access point you chose used a format your gear didn't support? Public Wi-Fi use didn't take off until Intel made it part of its notebook computing platform and notebook computers included working Wi-Fi.

ATSC Mobile DTV has to be equally ubiquitous and—I hope—easier to use. This includes a scanning operation for available TV channels that's as easily as scanning for available Wi-Fi access points.

And as Qualcomm found out, people aren't willing to carry multiple mobile devices. ATSC Mobile DTV should be available built-in on popular smartphones and tablets. The Tivizen is a good transition device for this, but broadcasters really need to get Mobile DTV built into smartphones and MIDs (mobile Internet devices). Getting ATSC Mobile DTV into Apple's iPhone or iPad would be a coup, but Android devices have a large market share that's still growing, and that may be enough.

A FLO TV shut down would create a unique opportunity for broadcasters. My hope is the broadcast groups promoting mobile DTV—the Open Mobile Video Coalition, the Mobile Content Venture, and the Mobile500 Alliance—will be able to generate enough interest and enthusiasm to make ATSC Mobile DTV a "must have" option in mobile devices, just as Wi-Fi is now. If the results from the OMVC Washington DC Mobile DTV Showcase are any indicator, that just might happen.

Another piece of good news is Siano's advanced receiver chip for ATSC mobile DTV.

"Siano has accumulated considerable knowledge and experience in emerging mobile TV markets, and we believe that American consumers will embrace Mobile DTV, which offers them easy access to their favorite local and national TV content anytime, anywhere," said Alon Ironi, Siano's CEO.

He noted that products using the SMS1530 would provide consumers with the best TV viewing experience—indoors and outdoors—as well as a high degree of mobility and enhanced battery life.

In the past I've noticed that Siano has cooperated with developers in providing support for their devices under Linux. This expertise could be helpful in rolling out ATSC Mobile DTV with the SMS1530 in low cost Linux-based Android tablets and smartphones.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.