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Big Questions Remain for Mobile DTV

THREE YEARS after starting development work on a new standard for transmitting digital TV signals to cellphones and other portable devices, broadcasters have a lot to be proud of. A new “Mobile DTV” standard was ratified by the Advanced Television Systems Committee last fall, and more than 50 stations have launched mobile DTV broadcasts. A joint venture of three networks and nine major station groups has formed to deploy a national mobile DTV program service. Early feedback from the first consumer trial of the technology in Washington, D.C., has been positive, with participants touting the picture quality of the mobile DTV broadcasts and reporting multiple viewing sessions per day.

But significant questions about the business model for mobile DTV still need to be answered. These include whether the technology should broadly launch as a free, adsupported service or as a subscription offering, and whether stations have the right to simulcast their normal network programming through mobile DTV. And while wireless carrier Sprint is participating in the Washington trial, which was organized by the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), no formal deal with a carrier to implement mobile DTV technology in handsets or other devices has been reached. If these questions aren’t addressed soon, the commercial launch of mobile DTV could be delayed well into 2011 or beyond.

Free or Pay?
The free-versus-pay-TV question has been discussed by mobile DTV insiders for several years, with most broadcasters saying that a free simulcast of their core program feed would likely be the way to initially bring mobile DTV to market. But the tenor of the debate has changed recently, with some networks suggesting that affi liates may not have the right to retransmit their programming as mobile streams. The formation of the Mobile Content Venture (MCV) in April, which aligned NBC, Fox and Ion Media with Pearl Mobile DTV, a collection of nine independent station groups—Belo, Cox Media Group, E.W. Scripps, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Television, Media General, Meredith, Post-Newsweek Stations and Raycom Media—has also brought a new focus to mobile DTV’s subscription prospects.

Local broadcasters say that the intent of MCV is to launch a pay-TV service using a mix of national and local content. Stations that aren’t part of MCV aren’t sure whether they’ll be invited to join, and if so, what the conditions will be; some are weighing the possibility of forming a separate venture to seek deals with syndicators and studios for content. And it remains unclear whether local stations not affiliated with MCV can offer their typical network programming via mobile DTV without striking new content-rights deals.

“[MCV has] a very specific business model, which is delivering local and national content on a subscription basis,” says Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is not part of MCV. “But there are a large number of broadcasters inside and out of OMVC who are not exactly sure that an exclusively paid service is in our best interests. We think that broadly speaking, having a free tier as a first foot forward allows you to build the business.”

Aitken adds that Sinclair, which has a large number of Fox affiliates, has had discussions with MCV about mobile content rights, as have other broadcasters. But so far, it has learned little.

“Honestly, I don’t know what the deal is,” Aitken says. “We would like to get a seat at the table to know what the deal is, and frankly, there’s activity going on to provide that seat.”

The two executives named last month to run MCV, NBCU’s Salil Dalvi and Fox’s Erik Moreno, wouldn’t directly address the question of mobile content rights for non-MCV stations. They also say it is too early to detail the venture’s programming plans. But it is clear that subscription revenues are a goal.

“I think it’s a little too early to talk about pricing and packaging, but nothing’s completely off the table,” says Dalvi, senior VP of mobile platform development for NBC Universal Digital Distribution. “Our model today is to get paid for content, and we’re very supportive of the pay model. It’s unlikely we would go to market without at least some portion of it having some price attached to it. It’s too early to tell what the price will be for what. It depends on what content is available, and what the quality of service is.”

As for additional groups joining MCV, Moreno, who serves as senior VP of corporate development for Fox Networks Group, says the venture is “definitely open” to that discussion. He adds that while there has been a great emphasis on speed in mobile DTV’s development so far, MCV is still in “an investigative phase” and will wait to analyze the data from the Washington trial before finalizing a business model.

The quality of mobile DTV service is certainly a key question regarding mobile DTV’s pay-TV prospects. The initial findings from Washington and other early mobile DTV markets suggest that mobile DTV transmissions are robust, and can be received in as many or more places than conventional DTV.

Mike Doback, VP of engineering for Scripps Television, has been impressed with the reception of mobile DTV broadcasts from WXYZ Detroit. The Scripps-owned ABC affi liate launched mobile DTV in May and last month teamed with Post-Newsweek station and NBC affiliate WDIV to demonstrate mobile DTV to automobile manufacturers who rode in vans equipped with prototype receivers.

“The signal is incredibly robust, more than anticipated,” Doback says. “We drove the streets of Detroit, in and around tall buildings, where you think it wouldn’t work. And it worked flawlessly.”

Keeping up with cellphones
But mobile DTV reception isn’t as ubiquitous today as cellphone reception, which is supported by numerous small transmitters across major cities. For example, DTV can’t be received in the tunnels of Washington’s Metro subway system, where Verizon and other carriers have installed repeaters to support their voice services.

To provide the same level of coverage with mobile DTV that smartphone users currently enjoy with their voice and data services, some engineers caution, broadcasters would need to supplement their existing single DTV transmitters with “gap-fi llers” for problem areas. They might even need to deploy multiple small transmitters in a single-frequency network (SFN), the same architecture currently deployed by Qualcomm’s FLO TV subscription mobile TV service.

Aitken notes that the consumer feedback on mobile DTV reception from the Washington trial, in which Sinclair’s WNUV Baltimore is a participant, has been positive. But he thinks consumers’ impressions might change if it weren’t free.

“My concern is that if this is a pay service, there will be additional investments required to fill in coverage gaps to fulfill the quality of service you’d need,” Aitken says. “If you were expecting that wherever you can make a call, you get TV coverage, that clearly is not the case. That’s why I make the distinction between free and paid. I think these are the big-picture takeaways. If the service cost you money, you wouldn’t be very happy if every time you hopped on the Metro and schlepped your way down the escalator, you lost service. So, you would need microcells and gap-fillers.”

For his part, Dalvi thinks the early feedback from D.C. proves that mobile DTV technology works. “What I’ve seen is that the quality of service is in line with other pay-TV services,” he says. “So, I don’t know why we wouldn’t consider that option.”

Samsung VP John Godfrey, whose company is providing its Moment smartphones for the Washington trial, doesn’t think that less-than-ubiquitous coverage rules out a subscription mobile DTV service. He points out that consumers already accept frequent dropped calls for their voice services. “People will pay for a service that doesn’t have 100% coverage,” he says.

But Godfrey, who says he has enjoyed watching Univision’s World Cup coverage on this mobile handset, thinks it’s vitally important that there be some free mobile DTV at launch. “That’s very appealing to consumers, and a great way to get them excited about it,” he says. “They’re used to ad-supported TV being free.”

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