CES 2010: Broadcasters Tout Mobile DTV Progress

Heads of several major station groups, technology vendors and the top executives of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) gathered in Las Vegas Wednesday night to hail the rapid development of mobile digital TV technology that lets stations transmit to cellphones and other portable devices.

The gathering was held on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center adjacent to the "Mobile DTV TechZone," an exhibit sponsored by the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) that is showcasing a variety of new mobile DTV-capable devices, including cellphones from LG and Samsung, a Dell netbook and a small bridge device from Korean manufacturer Valups called the "Tivit" that receives mobile DTV signals and retransmits them to smartphones and laptops through Wi-Fi networking

ION Media Networks Chairman and CEO Brandon Burgess opened the event by recounting conversations two years ago with CEA chief Gary Shapiro over broadcasters' desire to create a mobile DTV standard. He noted that Shapiro expressed skepticism and said broadcasters were "overly optimistic" in thinking they could get all the necessary constituents, including various consumer electronics manufacturers, on board behind a single technology.

Burgess pointed out that just two years later a mobile DTV standard is in place and devices are coming to retail, making it one of the fastest technology introductions ever.

"I'm holding one of the very first mobile DTV-enabled iPhones," said Burgess. "So I say, ‘Yes, we can.'"

Shapiro then took the dais, joking that it was "good to see Apple at the show," a not-so-veiled jab at Apple's longtime policy of skipping CES. But on a more serious note, Shapiro congratulated broadcasters and vendors on bringing mobile DTV to market, and said that in the 40-odd interviews he had done Wednesday with various press outlets, he had mentioned mobile DTV in every one.

"It's something that shows great promise," said Shapiro, who noted that trade shows like CES are essential to the technology development process as they "set a deadline where engineers have to make prototypes and show them."

Shapiro was followed by Gordon Smith, the former Oregon Senator (R) who is now CEO of the NAB. The sequence was somewhat ironic. CEA joined wireless group CTIA last fall in asking the Federal Communication Commission to consider reallocating parts of broadcasters' digital spectrum for wireless broadband applications, and Smith has spent most of his first few months in office lobbying against that proposal, among others (Shapiro also mistakenly introduced the NAB chief as "David Smith," who is the CEO of station group Sinclair).

Smith charged right into the spectrum issue, noting that during his time on the Senate Commerce Committee he had heard several suggestions that traditional broadcasting was outdated. He cited mobile DTV as a prime example of why that thinking was false, and thanked the Open Mobile Video Coalition for its efforts with mobile DTV, asserting that "broadcasting's best days are ahead of it."

Smith pointed out that as the FCC weighs its spectrum policy, it should consider that "It isn't always the quantity of spectrum needed, but the efficiency of how the spectrum is used. And no one uses spectrum more efficiently than broadcasters."

Broadcasters have been emphasizing to the FCC that broadcasting is still the most efficient way to deliver live video to a large audience, as using wireless broadband "unicast" connections to stream live video to cellphones would hog bandwidth and eventually crash cellular networks. Smith forecast that in the future, consumers would use iPhones and other mobile devices to access "local, live broadcast signals" using mobile DTV technology.

"That's the future, and it includes broadcasters," said Smith.

While broadcasters have been bullish about mobile DTV's prospects, they have still not defined how they will make money off the service. Several large station groups including Gannett, Media General, Hearst Television, Cox, Belo, Scripps, Ion Media, Raycom and Post-Newsweek have banded together to seek programming deals and negotiate with wireless carriers, though those discussions are in early stages and they've haven publicly disclosed details.

Gannett is already broadcasting mobile DTV on a trial basis in Washington and Atlanta, and Gannett Broadcasting President Dave Lougee said the group will be rolling mobile DTV out in more markets this year.

Lougee said the business model for mobile DTV was simple:

"Our communities are mobile, they're not static. We need to serve our viewers wherever they are---that's good business."

Lougee didn't provide details on the "Pearl Project," the joint venture of aforementioned station groups, but suggested that negotiations are moving forward.

"Behind the scenes there are robust discussions taking place with the right players at the right time, and progress is coming quickly," he said.

Jack Abernathy, CEO of the Fox TV Stations, also wouldn't comment on any potential discussions with wireless carriers but said that Fox remains optimistic about mobile DTV.

"We've always thought this was something important to look at," said Abernathy. "It's a good use of the spectrum."

While broadcasters don't have a formal deal with a wireless carrier, they are working with Sprint to test mobile DTV in a consumer trial in Washington, D.C. over the next few months. The trial is being organized by OMVC and will use signals from seven mobile DTV stations.

About 300 Sprint subscribers will be given Samsung "Moment" smartphones that are integrated with Samsung's new mobile DTV chip and a mobile DTV antenna. According to Samsung vice president John Godfrey, the 3G-capable phones will also be able to measure viewer's mobile DTV consumption, though details are still being worked out.

"We're going to hand them out to 300 real Sprint customers, and see how they use mobile DTV," said Godfrey.