Mobile TV is dead; long live mobile video

Just as with every year since 2006, 2010 is being touted as “the year of mobile TV.” On the face of it, this prediction makes sense. The adoption of handsets capable of supporting mobile TV is on the rise even in these cash-strapped times, there is more and more compelling content available for mobile platforms, and the football World Cup in South Africa will begin in June and almost certainly provide a spike in mobile TV service uptake, introducing new revenue streams.

Despite all of these grounds for optimism, there is one fundamental problem for mobile TV in 2010: For all intents and purposes, the previous incarnation of services providing a mobile version of conventional “appointment” TV is clearly flawed, with mobile broadcast services failing to reach any real commercial traction.

By contrast, mobile video itself is far from dying. We are on the brink of a revolution in mobile video in which content (including but not limited to broadcast TV) in a variety of forms is transmitted via an increasing number of modes of delivery — such as time-shifted or play-shifted — to an increasing number of platforms, and not just mobile handsets. (See Figure 1.) Clearly, a move to unicast personalized services comes with its own set of challenges, not least of which is network loading, but it is unlikely that the trend to unicast delivery to the living room and office will somehow not be reflected in mobile consumption.

What is causing the demise of mobile TV?

The seeds of mobile TV's almost inevitable decline were sown more or less at its inception with the emergence of 3G telephony. History notes the Klondike-style rush by telecom operators to acquire 3G licences at the end of the 1990s and in the early part of the last decade. Once the dust had settled and the billion-dollar licence agreements had been signed, there remained one problem: How would providers offer services, which would go some way in paying back the licence fees, compelling enough for subscribers to pay extra for? Broadcast TV seemed to fit the bill exactly.

Sadly it has never quite worked out. Fast-forward a decade and it is arguable that there have never, as yet, been any financially successful mobile TV services deployed anywhere in the world. The industry has been beset by standards issues that have slowed down the launch of paid-for services; issues regarding network provisioning that have led to problems with quality of experience; and, in Europe in particular, regulatory problems that seem designed to hinder market development.

There are five major mobile TV standards in operation that can support paid-for services but, interestingly, none does so universally. The cost of rolling out a dedicated mobile TV network, either as an overlay or extension to an existing mobile network is huge enough to deter only those with the deepest pockets. But why should a network overlay or extension be necessary in the first place? Shouldn't 3G and even HSPA networks be able to cope with demands for mobile TV by now?

A number of trials and indeed subsequent services have proved the concept of 3G-based mobile TV, but to date there have been issues regarding quality and scalability. Sufficient high-bandwidth coverage is not consistent across networks even though progressive download and adaptive streaming techniques have improved the mobile viewing experience. Evidence also suggests that the average number of live video sessions that a typical mobile cell can support is low; some claim as little as 10 per cell when taken over an entire network.

It's not by chance that a technology such as adaptive streaming exists on devices like the iPhone. But there's a bigger business problem. Live programming generally forms only a small part of what is streamed over the network. Typically what is sent is not live video but instead time-shifted, prerecorded content at lower resolutions and frame rates. Sending such content will only cause network bottlenecks and degrade the quality of the main revenue earners for operators, namely voice and business data.

Such mobile video services should be stored and cached on demand. There are two main reasons for this. Video encoding rates and delivery rates may not necessarily match. For example, 400kb/s video can be delivered on a 225kb/s connection. Secondly, when people are consuming content, they might not necessarily be or want to be connected to a network, such as when they are on a plane or roaming. Even in homes, a sufficient high-bandwidth network connection might not be available. These are basic one-on-one network planning issues, and the net result is that people just do not want to pay for services.

Yet operators and service providers still need video as part of their bouquets. The good news is that there is always growing demand for video on mobile and other platforms. Furthermore, it is possible to construct a single delivery infrastructure that supports a viable business model for delivering video content to a multitude of mobile platforms in what will inevitably be a converged multi-screen video environment.

The future for mobile video is to transcend the traditional. In the home, video will arrive at an STB or other receiver and will then be delivered at acceptable levels of quality to portable media players, including mobile handsets, PCs, laptops, netbooks, media tablets (such as the iPad) and, increasingly, portable games platforms. Outside the home, telco networks can deliver video where coverage and cell saturation permit. This will be made easier by the imminent arrival of next-generation high-bandwidth wireless networks such as the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) project of 3GPP and WiMAX. Users will also increasingly use Wi-Fi for live and “download and play later” modes.

The seemingly unstoppable success of the iPhone has prompted the launch of more and more smart phones capable of supporting mobile video. In addition, the success of catch-up TV services delivered over the Internet has driven service providers to launch converged video services and offer on-demand and live content to any IP device over any IP network. As the capacity of the core infrastructure is enhanced over time, there will be a migration from side-loaded content to live delivery of video content. The thirst for video content of all sorts, no matter how it is delivered, will continue to grow.

What does the successful mobile video infrastructure look like?

To deliver mobile video successfully, operators will need an infrastructure that encompasses real-time and offline content ingest, transcoding, DRM integration, video streaming and content distribution. It must leverage existing services to extend a high-quality digital TV experience to multiple screens. Video content will likely be repurposed for the growing on-demand and multiscreen consumption models, making it possible for operators to offer a mix of live streaming and time-shifted or on-demand video to legacy phones, smart phones or other Internet-connected devices. A mind-set shift is also required so that “mobile” does not necessarily mean “phone.” Indeed, voice capabilities will be less important as mobile devices evolve and laptops and netbooks enable even richer, and potentially more monetizable, experiences.

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The IPTV market has grown rapidly because of concurrent advances in network and STB technology making the video experiences good enough to attract investors. The mobile video industry needs to show the same type of advances in devices' video processing and storage capabilities and also in the provisioning of high-bandwidth networks. The user experience that such a combination will provide will almost certainly excite consumers and encourage them to spend money.

The benefit of such converged wired and wireless video services to operators is that they can couple their IPTV brands to mobile video so that the value delivered to customers can be monetized and used to acquire new subscribers on IPTV and mobile TV. This can be done with medium strain on network infrastructure because Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. A recent study found that more than 90 percent of the land area of Manhattan, a populous island that makes up part of New York City in the United States, was covered by one or more 802.11 access points. Furthermore, video-supporting smart phones are becoming widely deployed, and as these are already paid for, there is no need for additional investment from operators. For their part, subscribers get relevant services in three potential modes depending on their coverage: live streaming, side-loading (to support near DVR) or catch-up TV. They can watch their paid-for video content anytime (in time-shift mode), and anywhere in Wi-Fi (download) or out of coverage (download and play).

There are a number of potentially successful business models for mobile video, but the key is value. In any market, when you bring value to consumers, they will pay. For example, when a certain DVR was released with a $5-per-month fee, many doubted it would succeed. The success of Sky Plus in the UK, in addition to network-based solutions, has proven the value of DVR as a technology and as a business model.

Live video over telecom networks demonstrates the converse. The aforementioned network limitations hinder tremendously the potential for a successful mobile TV business model. Why would people pay for services that, if they are lucky enough to receive them in the first place, will not be of consistently high quality? In launching a mobile version of its flagship Sky Sports package for iPhones and Nokia devices, the broadcaster stipulated that video would be accessed over Wi-Fi and not the telecom network. Sky was safe in the knowledge that once people get Wi-Fi coverage, which is increasingly free these days, there is good and consistent quality and scalability of video. It should be noted that since AT&T introduced the iPhone to its service, just 3 percent of its users consume 40 percent of its network bandwidth.

A business model will likely emerge whereby users pay an incremental fee per month to be able to download video to their handsets over available background Wi-Fi networks whilst not overloading or degrading the general performance of handsets' 3G connectivity. Furthermore, just as they have learned from targeted adverts in IPTV streams, operators can run pre- and post-roll ads as well as live insertions. Such services are under active consideration by a number of leading operators and telcos, and commercial services based on such a model will likely be rolled out in the near future.

There is a transformation that operators need to make so that they can catch the consumer everywhere — wherever consumers go they can connect to video. The convergence of mobile with IPTV into a unified service delivery model will result in many more channels available for viewing on the mobile screen, something that offers both real value for users and a realistic business model for operators. Fundamentally, this convergence will reshape the landscape of pay TV. Mobile TV is dead. Long live mobile video!

Thierry Fautier is senior director of convergence solutions at Harmonic.