(click thumbnail)While Harris and LG Electronics demonstrated MPH in its own van...LAS VEGAS
In an industry where new technological development and acceptance have been known to move at an occasionally glacial pace, the impetus behind establishing a U.S. broadcast standard for mobile and handheld broadcast TV in the digital age appears to be accelerating at a breakneck pace.
In the first half of April alone, a coalition of major station groups, the Advanced Television Systems Committee, two competing format proponents, the trade press, and the massive exposure provided by NAB2007 all weighed in on the enticing prospect of slicing away a small portion of a local broadcaster’s allotted spectrum to provide TV content on mobile and handheld devices. Such an emerging potential revenue-generating venue also would be a coup, of sorts, over the cable and DBS industries, which cannot claim to possess digital terrestrial signals.
PICKING UP SPEED
The technical challenge of mobile TV in creating a plausible solution for vehicles, handhelds, and even laptop computers is the “mobile” part. A stationary portable device could simply pick up a terrestrial DTV signal with an ATSC tuner, so long as the tuner is within range of the DTV signal. Yet when a mobile or handheld device begins to move through difficult reception locations, such as urban canyons where signal strength may be extremely low, or where there may be difficult dynamic multipath, an 8-VSB stream likely will break up or be lost altogether.
The advent of a mobile standard for broadcasters assumed more industry credibility and urgency a week prior to NAB in early April when the ATSC announced its intentions to develop a standard, to be known as “ATSC-M/H.” Also announced a week before NAB, nine major groups whose stations collectively cover some 95 million TV households in virtually all major markets, formed the Open Mobile Video Coalition to help propel mobile DTV. The coalition currently includes: Belo, Fox Television Stations, Gannett Broadcasting, Gray Television, NBC Universal, Telemundo, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Tribune Broadcasting, and ION Media Networks.
(click thumbnail)...on the other side of the LVCC, Samsung offered mobile demos of A-VSB.“We feel the coalition can help standardize and organize both CE manufacturers and content providers,” said David Glenn, president of engineering at ION in West Palm Beach, Fla., which owns and operates 60 television stations nationwide. “It can also educate consumers to let them see they can have the content they want, when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it—whether it’s on a train, in a vehicle, or on a PDA/cell phone device.”
Glenn said mobile TV is not a technology for the future; it’s here today. “Broadcasters just have to stand up and let the CE industry know if they provide the devices, we will deliver the content.”
Another coalition member, Glenn Reitmeier, vice president for Technology Standards, Policy & Strategy at NBC Universal, said “this is the opportunity for broadcasters to rediscover and re-invent their roots in the digital age, since broadcasting is the original wireless service. So establishing an ATSC [standard] is the next logical step in digital television. We now have a ‘perfect storm’ of new enabling technologies, strong broadcaster interest in reaching mobile users, and the ATSC standards process already in gear.”
ATSC President Mark Richer said his group’s work on a mobile/handheld standard is based on recommendations in a strategic plan developed last year by the ATSC Board.
“The ATSC Planning Committee developed the preliminary project framework which was approved by our board in March 2007, and now the work is underway in our Technology and Standards Group,” Richer said.
Richer believes many broadcasters want the opportunity to announce new ATSC mobile and handheld services before the close-out of analog in February 2009.
(click thumbnail)LG Engineer Tim Laud fielded questions from NAB attendees who witnessed the MPH demos in a specially equipped van.“Our project goal is to meet that schedule requirement.” Richer said ATSC-M/H must be backwards-compatible and permit existing digital services to operate in the same RF channel without causing interference.
At NAB2007, Richer’s group set up a “DTV Hot Spot” to demonstrate an array of technologies related to ATSC Standards, including both proposed mobile systems. “We plan to provide the industry with an open standard that will ensure interoperability of services with consumer products,” he said.
The two competing systems were spotlighted amid generally good reviews at NAB2007 when MPH (Mobile-Pedestrian-Handheld) from Harris Corp. and LG Electronics and the A-VSB scheme from Samsung and Rohde & Schwarz provided their own respective demo rides through the near-gridlocked streets of Las Vegas.
The Harris/LG demo used a digital signal from Sinclair station KVCW-TV, digital Channel 29, transmitting from Black Mountain about a dozen miles from the convention center (750 kW at 1,086 feet HAAT). While the station fed its main DTV content at about 15 Mbps, it used the rest of its 19.39 Mbps to push out two simultaneous MPH signals for mobile/handheld retrieval (MPEG-4) at 557 kbps in real time, and at 299 kbps precoded.
Harris/LG premiered their system at NAB using a 6-inch untuned whip antenna mounted on the roof of its mobile van, with its input signal split four ways. No handheld prototypes, per se, were used in one demo tour taken by a group of reporters. Instead, screen images featured on a wall console in the van showed the regular 8-VSB signal alongside the MPH feeds. While the main 8-VSB signal showed fairly constant artifacting during much of the 45-minute drive around Las Vegas (which included a short tunnel or two), the mobile-centric MPH streams held up generally well on The Strip and other busy streets.
Meanwhile, at the competing NAB demo, which was first shown at CES in January, the Samsung A-VSB system tapped into a live transmission from another Sinclair outlet, KVMY-TV on digital Channel 22. The main stream of programming was maintained while the demo sliced away a total of about 3 to 3.5 Mbps (sometimes a bit more) of the allotted 19.39 Mbps—primarily to provide a one-quarter rate turbo stream of the main program, as well as a one-half rate turbo stream of special-purpose content.
Three low-power transmitters had been fixed to the Stratosphere Tower south of downtown Las Vegas, at the Paris hotel on The Strip, and inside the convention center itself, thereby creating a triangular configuration. The Samsung demo did use working handheld prototypes, each equipped with two 6-inch antenna rods (although a Samsung spokesman said the antenna will not be visible by the time devices reach consumers).
MediaFLO and Modeo Get the Party StartedWASHINGTON
MPH and A-VSB are about where MediaFLO and Modeo were a year ago. The latter two mobile TV services were demoed at NAB2006, similar to the way MPH and A-VSB were this year.
While the technology behind the four mobile TV formats is different, the end game is the same: Getting broadcast-quality television on mobile devices like cell phones.
MediaFLO, the proprietary transmission technology from Qualcomm in San Diego, is currently leading the pack in developmental terms. Verizon Wireless relaunched its VCast service in March using MediaFLO, and AT&T is on deck for a launch later this year.
The MediaFLO VCast service is available in 27 cities at $15 for eight channels, and $25 for eight more plus Web access. VCast originally was launched over Verizon’s regular data network and was much slower. Emerging transmission technologies such as MediaFLO allow for real-time delivery and channel surfing—like traditional TV. Jason Kenagy, vice president of product management for MediaFLO USA, said lingering indifference after the initial data launch remains a factor to overcome.
“We definitely, in our research, see that effect,” he said. “Users who have said, ‘a buddy of mine had it and doesn’t like it.’ We definitely do get those sort of responses, but across our trials, we find people saying, ‘oh, we didn’t know you meant this.’ What we’ve clearly seen is that when people see MediaFLO, they’re blown away.”
Verizon is not yet giving up the number of MediaFLO VCast subscribers. A company spokesman did allow that Verizon has around 60.7 million wireless subscribers, one-third of whom have phones with VCast capability, but mostly for the old data service. The MediaFLO service requires one of two smartphones—one a Samsung, the other an LG.
Modeo appears to be on par with MediaFLO in terms of development, but not deployment.
Modeo, a subsidiary of Houston communications tower firm Crown Castle, beta launched its DVB-H-based mobile TV service in New York City during the last week of 2006.
Mike Ramke became president of Modeo on New Year’s Day. He said that since the trials, Modeo has had a couple of big breaks.
One involved a waiver from the FCC allowing Modeo to crank up the power tenfold in urban areas and by a factor of 20 in rural areas. Doing so means Modeo can cover the same area with 75 percent fewer sites, save around $120 million in capital expenditures and $30 million a year in operating costs, according to Ramke.
Modeo, offered on a self-branded Microsoft smartphone developed by HTC, also announced on-demand viewing and DVR capabilities, and said feedback from the six-week New York beta tests was positive. The only thing lacking is a service provider.
“We have not made any announcements regarding our retail plan,” Ramke said.
Both Modeo and MediaFLO are contemplating future services. Modeo is doing personalized content, time-shifting and interactive click-type services, i.e., “click to vote,” and “click to buy.”
MediaFLO was demoed at NAB2007 by PacketVideo as a “proof-of-concept” that it would work on a third-party platform, Kenagy said. It was the first time MediaFLO was demonstrated on a device other than a cell phone. Another personal media device—a V-Card, developed by Qualcomm—was also demoed, as well as IP datacasting applications from Roundbox. Conditional access systems are also in the works, a spokeswoman said.
Kenagy said audio service, possibly FM radio, also was being considered.
“We’re evaluating that,” he said. “We haven’t announced anything at this point. We have trialed audio service; it’s had pretty good reception. We’re factoring that against other solutions that already exist.”
Another option under the scope is the download/hard drive model, in which case, audio service could be in the form of MP3s, for example. AT&T, in announcing its adoption of MediaFLO, said it would use the technology to deliver data and video clip files by the fourth quarter of this year.
The technology push for mobile TV has been more aggressive than the market would appear to merit. Research done last year by the Mobile Marketing Association indicated that only 1 percent of wireless subscribers watched TV on their cell phones. In-Stat nonetheless predicts a worldwide mobile TV market of 125 million subscribers by 2011.
Broadcasters are definitely looking at their options when it comes to mobile TV, and MPH and A-VSB will allow them to do it within their existing infrastructure. Both formats are vestigial sideband-based, and therefore compatible with 8-VSB, the U.S. terrestrial DTV transmission standard.
Neither Modeo nor MediaFLO are VSB-compatible, but as one network executive pointed out, they do have a very important advantage. Both minimize the capitol risk of launching mobile TV by providing the infrastructure, the devices and the subscribers. At the end of the day, the executive said, the networks gets paid for its content and if mobile TV flops in the market, his company doesn’t lose a dime.
- Deborah D. McAdams