Life after NTSC?

Broadcasters are jumping on the mobile DTV bandwagon.
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Just a few years ago, the DTV standards created and maintained by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) were under attack. ATSC efforts to proliferate the standards in North America to other parts of the world were largely unsuccessful. Outside of North America, only South Korea is currently broadcasting with the ATSC standard.

The inability of early ATSC receivers to deal with dynamic multipath, the ability of the DVB and ISDB standards to serve mobile and handheld devices, and the impression that ATSC is all about HDTV were perceived as major barriers to adoption outside the United States. Add to this the reality that 85 percent of U.S. homes have largely given up on the OTA television service in favor of multichannel subscription services, leaving many to believe that the future of ATSC, not to mention free-to-air broadcasting in the United States, looked dim.

Thanks to several recent developments, however, interest in the ATSC and its efforts to develop enhancements to its standards is growing. More to the point, U.S. broadcasters, who have done little to promote their new DTV service, are now looking toward Feb. 17, 2009, as an opportunity to reinvigorate a medium that has been in decline.

One of the most encouraging developments is the widespread availability of inexpensive integrated DTV receivers that work far better than earlier generations of ATSC receivers. Driven in large part by FCC mandates that require an ATSC receiver in any device that also incorporates an NTSC receiver, the consumer electronics industry appears to have put most of the old “8-VSB doesn't work” arguments to rest. Integrated CRT-based sets can now be found for just over $100. And the flat-panel displays coveted by most new TV buyers can be found for less than $300. The average price point for a 32in flat-panel display with integrated receivers is now less than $1000. But making 8VSB work for fixed receivers is not the big news here — it's long overdue.

Delivering bits to things that move is the big news in a world where Apple is now expected to sell 12 million iPhones by this time next year, and a variety of broadcast competitors are starting to use recovered 700MHz to deliver video services to cell phones.

One development that has broadcasters jumping onto the mobile DTV bandwagon was the demonstration of working mobile ATSC systems at this year's NAB. With two proposed systems being tested at the show, the ATSC issued a request for proposals (RFP) for its mobile and handheld standard (ATSC-M/H). On June 22, the ATSC announced that it received 10 responses to the RFP and that it plans to develop and test the standard, with the goal of launching the service in February 2009, as the NTSC service is shut down.

There is much irony in the fact that this renewed interest in DTV is based largely on the concept of developing wireless services for mobile and handheld devices. This could lead analysts, such as myself, who have been encouraging broadcasters to develop new businesses in the DTV spectrum to proclaim: “What a concept: using the broadcast spectrum to deliver services to things that move.”

Perhaps the TV guys could have gotten a clue from the thriving radio industry, which is spending more than half a billion dollars to promote its new HD radio technology.

If in doubt, join an alliance

The mobile video space is now cluttered with alliances of industries and companies that seek to develop the standards for mobile and handheld receivers. Some are pushing specific standards, while others have been formed to help guide the development of appropriate standards for mobile DTV broadcasting and the potential harmonization of multiple systems via devices that support multiple standards.

At the international level, the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) is attempting to develop open standards that will allow many competing technologies to be interoperable. In June, the OMA announced the public availability of Mobile Broadcast (BCAST) Version 1.0 Candidate Enabler Release. The specification is an open global standard for interactive mobile television as well as on-demand video services, and is adaptable to any IP-based mobile content delivery technology.

In the United States, several groups have formed and are discussing the harmonization of mobile DTV standards. The Mobile DTV Alliance is an open industry consortium that focuses on promoting the best practices and open standards to deliver premium-quality broadcast television to mobile TV devices in North America.

The alliance includes companies from across the mobile business system and entertainment value chain, including Disney, HiWire, Intel, Microsoft, Modeo, Motorola, Nokia and Texas Instruments. The Mobile DTV Alliance is one of the organizations that responded to the ATSC-M/H RFP. This appears to be a liaison activity with the goal of harmonizing the efforts of broadcasters and system operators that will be using OFDM-based technologies for services targeted at cell phones.

At NAB, the Open Mobile Video Coalition was announced with member broadcast TV stations that reach 95 million households. The members include the broadcast television station groups of Belo, FOX, Gannett, Gray, ION Media, NBC Universal, Sinclair and Tribune. In June, the NAB announced its support for and participation in the efforts of the coalition and the ATSC to bring broadcast DTV service to mobile and handheld devices.

Qualcomm, a company that works with cellular operators in the United States and around the world to promote its OFDM-based MediaFLO service, is also participating in the ATSC-M/H standardization efforts. The company manufactures chips for cell phones and is interested in developing chips that could support both MediaFLO and the ATSC-M/H standard.

The high level of interest in the potential mobile handheld market, together with the willingness of diverse business interests to work together to develop standards, is an encouraging development. It remains to be seen whether these interests can work together to develop and deploy a viable standard within two years.

Ramping up other ATSC standards efforts

While the ATSC-M/H efforts are garnering most of the attention, several related standards are currently being addressed by ATSC working groups. Perhaps most important is the work on advanced video codecs, which will likely be used by mobile and handheld devices. The H.264/ MPEG-4 AVC codec is likely to be adopted. However, like desktop computers, next-generation mobile and handheld devices may support multiple video and audio codecs.

A larger question for broadcasters looms in the future. Now that millions of MPEG-2-based DTV receivers are being sold, will it be possible to migrate the main programming of broadcasters to newer and more efficient codecs? The allocation of a significant percentage of the available bit rate for new mobile and handheld services will mean that fewer bits will be available for traditional programming, thus making more efficient codecs an attractive proposition.

Efforts are also underway to develop a standard for non-real-time delivery of audio and video content. This may encompass downloading programs (including premium movie content) to digital video recorders, as well as services targeted at mobile and handheld devices.

Work is also underway on the Advanced Common Application Platform (ACAP), a standard for interactive TV middleware that is compatible with the cable industry's OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP) standard. In addition, work is underway on a standard for an ENG data return link that will use spectrum that is part of the Nextel ENG relocation project.

Chickens, eggs, carts and horsepower

While there is widespread interest in developing the standards for broadcasting to mobile and handheld devices, it is less clear how interested consumers are to buy products that support these standards. To date, consumer interest in paid video subscription services through cell phone providers has been minimal. Most of these services do not offer localized content, an area that local broadcasters may be ideally suited to develop.

Many handheld devices, such as Apple's iPhone, support Wi-Fi and other data networks that can be used to access much of the content available via Internet connection. These devices can also sync with computers on home networks to download video content that can be viewed at any time. Then there's the potential markets for delivering content to vehicles, many of which now come from the factory with car theater systems and GPS, data and satellite radio services.

So the real challenge will be the creation of services that people will actually want to use. Next month's column will discuss the opportunities to create content that can be broadcast to mobile and handheld devices.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Web links

Read these past Broadcast Engineering articles at www.broadcastengineering.com:

  • “Mobile TV,” by Craig Birkmaier, June 2007
  • “Pinning Down Mobile TV,” by Anthony R. Gargano, June 2007

Elsewhere on the Web, check out:

Send questions and comments to:craig.birkmaier@penton.com