Mobile video is on the way

While many at the NAB convention evangelized the benefits and additional revenue of sending video to mobile phones and other devices, and even though the technology and systems to do it are available, few were buying. Competing standards, DVB-H and MediaFLO, along with a new implementation for the ATSC standard, called Advanced VSB, are all making broadcasters decisions a bit harder to make should they decide to commit.

Rather than feeling left out of the emerging cell phone video landscape, due to a lack of content (most of the compelling content is owned by the motion picture studios and large media organizations like Viacom and the Walt Disney Company), broadcasters at the convention seemed ambivalent. Perhaps it's because getting HDTV off the ground (literally) is keeping them plenty busy.

“[Launching new mobile video services] is certainly an area we will look at as an additional revenue source, “said William Schwartz, chief engineer at public station WCEU-TV, in Daytona Beach, FL, “but we've got enough on our plate at the moment. Besides, it's the younger generation that really wants to watch video on a cell phone, so we feel there's no rush and we have time to get it right.”

At the NAB convention traditional transmission systems suppliers like Axcera, Harris, Thales Broadcast & Multimedia (now owned by Thomson), and Rohde and Schwartz all showed new systems to reformat video signals for the smaller screen. Other companies, like Chyron, Inscriber (Harris) Pixel Power and Vizrt, showed new ways to automatically reformat TV graphics for cell phone screens. Other production issues, like camera angles, cropping and frame and bit rates, still need to be worked out.

It appears clear that to get these new types of mobile services off the ground, local broadcasters will have to pursue relationships with cell phone companies like Qualcomm, Sprint and Verizon, whereby stations will prepare the content and send it to a “super headend” facility where it will be passed on to consumers. This potential model means that stations will have to share the revenue with the cell phone service providers, so in some cases it might not be worthwhile.

Broadcasters are in no hurry
Cordillera Communications, owners of 11 TV stations in the Midwest, is using Harris transmitters and Leitch servers for all of its traditional TV operations and is considering Harris' newly announced Cool Play transmitter, designed for mobile video applications. It may be used specifically for the DVB-H standard in play by telco Crown Castle's MODEO service (being tested in Pittsburgh, PA, and New York City). Yet Andrew Suk, vice president of engineering and operations, said they are in no hurry.

“We're not concerned with being left out at this point, but we do need to get it right or we won't make any money,” he said. “We're not a PBS station company; we have to justify everything we do. We'll probably partner with Qualcomm for mobile video, that's the quickest way to get it on the air. They need our content and seem very willing to work with us.”

Of course, all of the networks, who are owned by these big media conglomerates, have some type of distribution deal in place for sending popular shows to cell phones and iPODs via Apple's iTunes downloading service. Local stations have thus far been left out of the equation, although network executives at the convention said they are willing to work with their affiliates and share in these new revenue streams where it makes sense.

Local content has value
The message to broadcasters, from network executives as well as from David Rehr, new president of the NAB, is that local content can be a compelling service if launched and marketed correctly. The key they said, is not to wait too long. WRAL-TV, in Raleigh, NC, an early pioneer in DTV, HDTV and Webcasting, has tested sending its news programs to subscribers' cell phones in its market and has seen promising results. Others are sure to follow soon.

“Broadcast signals need to go everywhere, to everyone, to every device,” Rehr told an audience during a keynote address at the NAB convention. “After all, TV and radio were wireless before it was cool.”

The general feeling is that both Qualcomm's MediaFLO and the DVB-H systems will co-exist for some time, as neither has proven to be superior over the other. The advantage that the two systems have at this point are that Qualcomm, developers of the MediaFLO technology, has the cell phone carrier infrastructure in place to do it and has received FCC approval for MediaFLO mobile broadcasting arrangements with TV stations serving Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana. Meanwhile the DVB-H standard has proven to be reliable in Europe.

Using the nationwide license for TV channel 55, Qualcomm is building the MediaFLO network to offer television services to mobile phones. The system is designed to allow mobile carriers a way to deliver bandwidth intensive video services onto a dedicated network, preserving their cellular infrastructures for traditional mobile applications.

Since TV channel 55 is part of the 700MHz band being cleared by broadcasters as they transition to digital, Qualcomm must enter into private agreements to clear the spectrum prior to the congressionally-mandated end to the DTV transition in February 2009, the report said. The FCC then must approve the agreements.

Verizon Wireless has announced plans to use MediaFLO, and Samsung and LG Electronics have announced plans to build mobile phones for the system.

Yet another mobile standard
On the other hand, the A-VSB system being proposed by Rohde & Schwartz for mobile video applications is far less entrenched, but it leverages the government-mandated ATSC standard and uses training signals to track dynamic multi-path coverage areas. This means that broadcasters can use the service without government intervention. Rohde has submitted a formal proposal to the ATSC for its use.

According to Mike Smith, manager of market development for the company's RF products, signals can be distributed with a single high-power transmitter or via a network of smaller transmitters surrounding a particular coverage are; in much the same way DVB-H and MediaFLO systems are now being implemented.

Using Rohde's SX800 exciter, Smith said they have demonstrated the reliable reception of two MPEG-4 channels in a vehicle traveling at 150 MPH. He added that it does not interfere with current ATSC signals now on the air. Rohde is working closely with Samsung on an A-VSB system, with Samsung agreeing to make the necessary receiving devices available by December 2007.

The CRC in Canada will test the system this summer, using three strategically located Rohde transmitters around the city of Toronto. Rohde also makes technology that is compatible with the DVB-H, MediaFLO and T-DMB (used in Korea) systems.

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