For broadcast industry, mobile video initiatives creeping forward

Although the phrase mobile video was mentioned in countless exhibit booths on the show floor, the reality is that the industry continues to lag behind telco competitors that plan to go live with mobile video services next month. Subscriptions numbers for AT&T and Sprint are reported to be around 250,000, although accurate figures are hard to come by.

Both Harris, proposing its Mobile Pedestrian Handheld (MPH), and Rohde & Schwarz (proponents of A-VSB) staged live demonstrations of their respective technologies on the show floor, receiving signals from local Sinclair Broadcast Group stations on cell phones and other portable devices. Axcera, another provider of transmission technology, announced its support for the A-VSB scheme for local broadcasters, while showcasing five mobile TV demonstrations used around the world, including A-VSB, DVB-SH, DVB-H, CMMB(STiMi) and QUALCOMM’s MediaFLO in its booth.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), which is leading an effort to develop a common standard by which U.S. stations will use their allotted DTV bandwidth to send video via the mandated ATSC transmission standard, recently conducted real-world mobile reception tests in several markets, including Las Vegas (with three local stations) at the beginning of April.

The group held a press conference at the show. After it completes testing of three competing systems —proposed by Harris, Rohde & Schwartz and Thomson — the OMVC will determine what it feels is the best option, then provide a report to the ATSC for standards consideration. The report will be delivered on May 15, and the ATSC will decide on a standard before Feb. 17, 2009, the official analog spectrum shutoff.

Some of the issues left undetermined include program rights usage and how soon, once a standard is decided, the consumer electronics manufacturers (namely LG Electronics and Samsung) can get the necessary reception chips into next-generation cell phones, laptop computers and other portable devices and systems. With LG Electronics supporting Harris’ proposal and Samsung behind Rohde’s, what will happen if the other is picked? In other words, will LG Electronics make chips for Rohde’s A-VSB scheme, even though it has already begun development on chips for Harris’ MPH system?

While representatives for both LG and Samsung said they would support whatever system was eventually standardized, it was clear it would take a lot longer to do. John Taylor, an LG Electronics executive, said MPH chips could be available by the end of the year, but his company wouldn’t have A-VSB chips until “sometime next year.” Samsung had a similar response.

Also, once the industry decides on a mobile standard, LG and Samsung will have to convince the major telco service operators, such as AT&T and Sprint, to install the chips into new phones. This could be a lot harder to do, because of financial politics, than many are publicly acknowledging. With AT&T and Sprint now using QUALCOMM’s MediaFLO technology to send video now, what incentive do they have to include a second chip for local broadcasters’ services?

Junehee Lee, a mobile RF engineer for Samsung, said consumer demand could encourage the telcos to install the chips. He cited what occurred in Korea, where consumers began asking for the feature in their cell phones after seeing it appear on portable media players and via USB reception devices on computers. The telcos quickly responded, and DVB-H chips are now included in many phone models.“Competition and consumer demand will drive this,” he said.

The next more practical issue is whether broadcasters will have to deploy a ring of low-power transmitter towers around a market in order to ensure good reception. Axcera and Rohde & Schwarz engineers say it’s imperative that a single frequency network (SFN) is deployed, while Harris employees say that’s not necessarily the case.

David Neff, president of Axcera, said, “Drawing upon our extensive experience in mobile TV technology, it is apparent that A-VSB is highly efficient technology architecture for ATSC operation with proven SFN capability which we know is essential for commercially viable mobile TV networks.”

Jay Addrick, a vice president within Harris’ Broadcast Communications Division, said in markets where the ATSC DTV television signal propagates well, his company’s MPH scheme could be transmitted at 1Mw and reach a radius of 40 miles. He predicts that about 10 percent of those stations that deploy a mobile service will have to use some type of SFN; the rest can get by from their existing TV tower.

“SFNs are not essential to mobile DTV, Addrick said. “Broadcasters have a number of tools at their disposal, such as gap fillers and such, to fill out problematic areas. We’re saying that most broadcasters will be able to use their existing transmission infrastructure and a new mobile exciter in their digital transmitter, and be successful.”

The OMVC said they understand the urgency of getting its 100 member stations involved in mobile video as soon as possible. The longer the wait the less chance they have for success.

At the OMVC press conference in Las Vegas, Jim Conschafter, broadcast group senior vice president at Media General and a founding OMVC member, said "We need device makers to make receivers, we need service operators to bundle our television signals in, and we need retailers to sell devices."

On that point everyone seems to agree.

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