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Mobile DTV gains momentum among technical community

If there is any doubt about the interest among local stations to deploy some type of mobile DTV service, it sure wasn’t evident at Broadcast Engineering’s recent one-day conference on the subject in New York City.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), which helped present the event, said that 80 stations are now on the air with a Mobile DTV signal that is compliant with the ATSC A/153 standard, and about 200 plan to be doing so by the end of the year. Not many have reported any measurable viewer usage, as the devices with the necessary receiver chip are scarce, but OMVC said its Washington, D.C., test last year found that local news content was among the most popular with consumers.

“Daytime is Primetime” is the new motto for Mobile DTV proponents. The feeling among many of the RF engineers that are being tasked with making it work technically mostly agree that, while there is yet no clear business model for a wireless service, stations have to get a signal on the air in order to experiment within their respective markets and attract consumers’ attention.

According to Anne Schelle, executive director of the OMVC, what consumers (who used the prototype service about 50 minutes, on average, per day) found lacking in the multichannel test — where all of the local stations participated — was 24/7 movie and sports channels. What they could watch on most of the channels was a simulcast of what each station had on its TV channel.

The 350 test subjects, who were using Dell notebook computers with an external dongle and antenna, LG DVD players and Samsung Moment cell phones, also requested longer battery life. The OMVC trial also found that larger screen sizes resulted in longer viewing times.

While virtually every one of the more than 75 participants — representing key players like chief engineers, online technical staff and even some independent transmission consultants/experts — came with serious expectations of launching a mobile signal as part of its DTV transmission stream, it was clear that a number of questions remain.

“There’s no doubt we want to get something on the air soon; we haven't figured out the best and most economical way to do it yet,” said Richard Klein, director of engineering at local NBC affiliate WNYT-DT, in Albany, NY. “I think most stations realize they have to get in the game because [portable devices] is where our audience is moving to.

Sam Matheny, general manager of the News Over Wireless service at Capital Broadcast Corp. (CBC) — who was among the invited guest speakers — said the need for mobile DTV service goes far beyond the cell phone. While his team is focused on developing content for the emergence of the electronic tablet, he told the audience that at the current rapidly expanding rate of video viewing on platforms other than television, providers of such video services would need extra bandwidth and that stations could help provide it.

Sandhi Kozsuch, director of Mobile Broadcasting at Cox Media Group, said current 4G and LTE service couldn’t handle the coming demand as well as a “one to many” strategy deployed by local over-the-air broadcasters.

“If you are sending a YouTube-quality video, then a one-to-one model employed by cell phone services can work,” he said, “but if your audience is critical about image quality, and you want to clearly distinguish your multichannel video service from the competition, the terrestrial, ‘single-stick’ broadcast model is much more efficient and will get the job one to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Kozsuch’s employer, Cox Media group, is part of the Mobile Content Venture (MCV), a subset of the OMVC, along with the Mobile500 group, that has stated its member stations will have mobile DTV service in 30 markets (with three to four stations per market) and reach 50 percent of the mobile viewing audience by early 2012. He said he was assuming that the devices would become available later this year or early next.

Another Mobile DTV opportunity being pursued today by CBC’s WRAL, in Raleigh, NC, is an innovative partnership with the city, in which the station is broadcasting a mobile DTV signal to six city buses. The station is sending video, weather information and real-time RSS news feeds to two 24in flat-screen displays on each bus. The feedback from viewers has been extremely positive, according to Matheny.

Jim Kutzner, chief engineer at PBS, said there is a clear need for the entire ecosystem to be developed and deployed for Mobile DTV to be successful. Among a list of implementation alternatives, he floated the idea of stations leasing the wireless spectrum for alternative video distribution platforms or to other stations for datacasting services as well. He also suggested video on demand and “clear to air,” or unscrambled content, as ways to attract viewers on the go.

Some of the nuts-and-bolts technical issues discussed were how to improve signal propagation, including increasing power levels, the deployment of single frequency networks, and UHF vs. VHF issues. Electronic program guides and conditional access were also stated as critical to offering a multichannel service — free TV and subscription VOD and PPV — that would be attractive to consumers and content owners alike.

It was also revealed that the cost to deploy a Mobile DTV system — from companies like Acrodyne, Harris, Rohde & Schwarz and Thomson — as a part of a station’s (19.39Mb/s) DTV stream is about $100,000.

“If manufacturers are asking for any more than that, you are not negotiating correctly,” said Brett Jenkins, vice president of Technology for ION Media, which has several stations on the air with a mobile DTV signal now.

“I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that this is probably the most exciting time in the history of the broadcast industry,” Matheny said. “Mobile DTV opens up so many opportunities that simply were not even possible before. Despite the hurdles to get there, it’s in every station’s interest to look into this and get with the program.”