M/H service could look different in diverse markets

The new mobile DTV specification (A/153) now being considered as a candidate standard within the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) for use by broadcasters as part of their 19.4MB of spectrum is likely to become a full standard in the fall, but stations can now use it at any time, and in a variety of ways, in order to get their services started.

Indeed, broadcasters have the option to use the ATSC proposal in different ways. While the spec consists of more than 800 pages of documentation at present, there could still be some tweaking that occurs when signals are transmitted and real-world field reports accumulated.

For example, there are two stated error correction modes that are part of the spec now being considered. A third that could be added if a broadcaster wanted to focus on an in-car business model instead of a cell phone service, as this would require much less error correction implemented in a slightly different way.

Also, part of the candidate standard includes a scalable video codec, allowing broadcasters to transmit content at different date rates for various services. It comes down to where broadcasters want to commit their bits, according to Mark Aitken, chairman of the ATSC Specialist Group on Mobile & Handheld, and director of advanced technology for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. His committee evaluated the initial mobile DTV proposals and drafted the current candidate standard.

“[The ATSC] has a very open policy that allows anyone to voice constructive input or concerns with the proposal now on the table,” he said. “That’s what goes into every standard that the ATSC approves. Even though a lot of work has already been done on the candidate standard, there might be some tweaks that other smart folks come up with, and we’re ready to listen to those. At the end of the day we want a standard that everyone can use, in a variety of ways. Broadcasters want to take advantage of the best innovations from the start.”

Of course, getting phone companies to offer the service on portable devices so that consumers can use the technology is another matter altogether. In order for LG Electronics or Samsung to get the necessary ATSC mobile DTV receiver chip into the market, it requires network operators like Sprint and AT&T to request them from the phone manufacturing companies. Aitken said phone companies have not yet stated whether they will carry the chip, but talks and negotiations are underway.

While much has been speculated about the potential of mobile video services, Aitken said mobile DTV will not necessarily compete with QUALCOMM’s MediaFLO modulation scheme or other services that currently carry most of the national content now available to portable devices. With subscription numbers struggling to make significant market penetration, Aitken said those services do not include the content people have tended to consume in large numbers (e.g., hyper-local weather, traffic, news and sports).

“The services that broadcasters are talking about offering would be complementary to what‘s now available,” Aitken said. “I think there are a number of business models that fit in nicely in today’s competitive landscape while providing a role for mobile network operators and broadcasters to drive revenue; even if broadcasters decide to put out a free-to-air mobile signal. I believe that over the next 60-90 days, what will begin to take shape is some very creative ways to monetize the service and allow both broadcasters and network operators to share in the new revenue.”

Cell phone manufacturers such as LG Electronics and Samsung, which both support the ATSC mobile DTV spec, have said that when the request is made from mobile network operators, they will have the incentive to produce the ATSC mobile DTV chips in large quantity. That has not yet happened. There is a strong sense that several broadcasters in a particular market will have to be involved in order for a broadcaster mobile television service to survive. A single channel stands little chance of success in and of itself.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a group representing more than 800 broadcast stations pushing the ATSC mobile technology, has made a real commitment to bring the technology to market. More than 70 stations in 24 markets — reaching about 35 percent of the 114.5 million U.S. television households — have said they will use part of their digital spectrum to participate in a semi-national launch of mobile DTV services beginning this summer. For example, in New York, three stations —WPXN, WNBC and WNET, will participate while in San Francisco two stations — KTVU and KXPX — will join in.

Harris Broadcast, which developed the proposed candidate standard with others, has announced an end-to-end ATSC mobile DTV technology platform that enables broadcasters to transmit a mobile/handheld signal, which will be available to stations within the next 60 days. The complete Harris ATSC mobile DTV platform includes an Apex M2X exciter and the NetVX networking platform, which features a mobile video encoder, multiplexer and encapsulator. Harris is also working with Roundbox and Triveni Digital to integrate EPG services for program stream and data information. It is expected that by the time NAB 2009 rolls around there will be a number of diverse companies providing similar and complementary products.

“The broadcast industry has decided that we’re not going to wait any more to begin developing mobile video services,” Aitken said, “even if there is no consensus on a clear and specific business model, at this point. We should remember that HDTV was slow to take off as well. It is our hope that the ambitious efforts of the OMVC to provide programming in a large part of the country will end the ‘chicken or egg’ problem.”

But, is this effort by broadcasters too little, too late? Sinclair’s Aitken and all of the OMVC members don’t think so.

“Who else is out there making money and making the services available at an affordable price?” Aitken asked. “Broadcasters are arriving just at the beginning, with just the right product. If you look at what consumers really want to watch on their cell phones and portable devices, it’s the content that they see in their home on TV. The OMVC is committed to allowing viewers watch broadcast TV wherever they are. It’s that simple. Broadcasters will provide the content that people want to watch.

Aitken then added, “We are inviting folks to join the mobile DTV party!”