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The tease of ATSC M/H

From time to time, the world of advertising hits a home run by producing memorable television commercials with catchy sayings that eventually join the day's lexicon. One that comes to mind is, “I can't believe I ate the whole thing,” popularized by Alka Seltzer in a series of commercials aired beginning in 1972. Alka Seltzer reprised the saying in new ads in the early 2000s, but it didn't catch on the second time around. Perhaps it was a testament to another saying, not from television but from the gifted hand of Thomas Wolfe: “You can't go home again.”

We can all recall “putting a tiger in our tank” and “not leaving home without it” or entrusting ourselves to the “good hands people.” With that as a backdrop, perhaps you can understand why one of those famous sayings came to mind when I recently evaluated the current state of Mobile DTV.

Once again, at this year's preeminent consumer tech gadget event, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), much hype existed over ATSC M/H, or more commonly Mobile DTV. One can't help but wonder how many successive years a technology can be introduced, reintroduced and reintroduced yet again? Some years ago, I cautioned the ATSC not to take too long with the M/H standardization process as the market window might quickly pass. Little did I realize that the ATSC would prove to be the hare as opposed to the turtle of the commercialization process that began once the standard was adopted.

With my being an inveterate Apple junky who owns too many “i” devices, Tivizen's CES 2011 announcement of an ATSC M/H version of its DTV dongle, which would allow my iPad to become a Mobile DTV receiver, was exciting indeed. Availability in the U.S., it advised, would be in June 2011. Ten months later, there is not even a hint (as of this writing) of said dongle. In the meantime, my iPad now brims with television apps. With player apps from ABC, NBC, PBS and TNT, plus the TV apps from Xfinity TV, HBO Go, Livestation and Nettalk TV, there is plenty to watch. Then, there's the master of TV apps, the Slingbox Player, which allows access to not only real-time broadcast content, but also to the content library recorded on a DVR.

My latest foray into the nebulous world of Mobile DTV was an unscientific consumer check by walking into a local branch of gadget heaven Best Buy to inquire about Mobile DTV. My first stop was the Mobile Electronics department, where they sold anything but. Explaining ATSC M/H Mobile DTV simply brought back blank faces; a walk to the televisions section did the same. Going online to Best Buy's e-commerce site, a search for Mobile DTV revealed but one product. Interestingly, a search of B&H, one of the largest East Coast mail order electronics sites, followed by a similar search on Fry's, one of the largest on the West Coast, produced equally similar results.

And so, with this dearth of consumer products and several years into introductions and reintroductions, the result is we can count the product offerings on one hand. That said, is it any wonder why the “beef” question made so popular in those Wendy's commercials of yore immediately came to mind? Ah, but there were numerous Mobile DTV product introductions at this year's CES, right? Yes, but once again with delivery promises for later in the year. Will these products actually show up on retailers' shelves? Still awaiting delivery of last year's Tivizen iPad dongle, past track records do not engender a high level of confidence.

But alas, the entire blame cannot be foisted upon just the consumer electronics industry. In yet another Wendy's moment, a check of the Mobile DTV Station Guide, on the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) web site, reveals that through the end of January, only 119 stations across the country are on-air with Mobile DTV.

Has the market window passed? Probably not, if Mobile DTV products really start shipping and if the service can deliver some level of unique value proposition to the consumer. But, with the cable industry's TV Everywhere initiative, the availability of Slingboxes, 7in and 9in portable ATSC TVs selling for as little as $50, a host of video apps available for tablets and smartphones, and HDTV USB tuner dongles available for netbooks, laptops and desktops, the marketplace is rife with solid choices and embedded competition.

CES 2013 cannot host yet another reintroduction of Mobile DTV. If the industry does not make it happen this year, it's not going to happen.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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