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CES: Broadcasters' Mobile DTV Moment

CES '09: Complete Coverage from Broadcasting & Cable

Broadcasters and technology vendors used the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week to showcase the extensive progress they have made toward bringing digital television (DTV) broadcasts to mobile phones and other portable devices.

In fact, the group of broadcasters pushing for the mobile DTV standard, which includes 800 stations nationwide, announced that they will launch mobile DTV broadcasts in 22 markets later this year.

Broadcasters have high hopes for mobile DTV gaining traction with viewers. Gannett Broadcasting President Dave Lougee, for example, noted President-elect Obama's upcoming inauguration, where the expected throng on the Mall in Washington will be able to hear the incoming president but won't be able to see him. If mobile DTV were available, he said, they could do both.

“Our customers are mobile and we should be, too. Now we can be,” he said, citing other, more practical applications, like weather alerts. Lougee said Gannett will launch mobile DTV services in Atlanta and Denver, where it has duopolies, and use the UHF spectrum of KTVD Denver and WATL Atlanta to provide mobile DTV simulcasts of its NBC affiliates in those markets, KUSA and WXIA.

Much of the credit for mobile DTV's speedy development goes to the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a group led by large station groups such as Ion Media Networks, Fox Television Stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Gannett. The coalition has driven much of the ATSC standards process by conducting field tests to evaluate proposed transmission systems, and defining the business requirements for a potential mobile DTV service.

Rolling Out Mobile

In Vegas, the OMVC pulled together a comprehensive demonstration of live mobile DTV broadcasting at a press event that drew significant attendance from broadcasters and technology vendors, as well as a few wireless carriers. OMVC members said they plan to launch mobile DTV later this year across 63 stations in 22 markets, covering 35% of U.S. television households, including major markets such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

The stations include 14 NBC affiliates, nine ABC affiliates, nine CBS stations, five Fox affiliates, nine Ion Television outlets, four CW affiliates and four MyNetworkTV affiliates, along with nine PBS stations that are in discussions with the OMVC to join the 2009 launch.

Development of a new technical standard moved rapidly since the process was officially started by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) in May 2007. Last month, the ATSC approved a preliminary, or “candidate,” standard that vendors can use to begin actively building products. The first ATSC Mobile DTV prototype devices were demonstrated at CES, including handsets and MP3 players from LG Electronics and in-car video systems from Kenwood, Visteon and Delphi.

The exact business model for mobile DTV is unclear, and no wireless carriers or handset manufacturers have formally committed to providing mobile DTV chips in their handsets. But Harris Corp., which developed mobile DTV's underlying transmission technology with LG and Zenith, says it will be ready to ship a complete mobile DTV headend system for stations to install in 60 days, and broadcasters say they will launch with free ad-supported services.

Broadcasters, Carriers Collaborate

Instead of facing opposition from carriers that have already launched their own video services, such as Qualcomm's MediaFLO live TV service or the MobiTV service carried by Sprint, broadcasters and wireless carriers will likely collaborate to bring mobile DTV-enabled handsets to market, said Ion Media Networks CEO Brandon Burgess. He noted that the point-to-multipoint capability of mobile DTV will help carriers avoid overloading their cellular networks with video services.

“This whole theory that there should be hostilities, I don't see that,” Burgess said. “It's more efficient to work together.”

While no wireless carriers formally appeared at the OMVC event, executives from Sprint were in the audience, though they declined to comment on broadcasters' mobile DTV plans. Burgess, who chairs the OMVC, said that one unnamed wireless carrier had already approached the OMVC early in the standards process about getting involved, and Media General Senior VP Jim Conschafter said there have been ongoing discussions with carriers. “I think we will ultimately have carrier relationships,” Conschafter said.

For the CES demonstration, Sinclair provided slices of spectrum from its two Las Vegas stations, KVCW and KVMY, to support the delivery of nine live video streams and one data feed. Between the two Sinclair stations, which continued to broadcast their normal DTV programming throughout the CES demo, there were about 15 megabits per second (Mbps) of usable bandwidth for mobile DTV, according to Mark Aitken, Sinclair director of advanced technology. About 5 Mbps came from KVCW, which broadcasts CW fare like Gossip Girl in HD, while the rest came from KVMY.

By using MPEG-4 compression, the combined payload was also enough to deliver live mobile DTV simulcasts of the programming on each major affiliate in Las Vegas (except CBS') and the PBS outlet, as well as mobile DTV simulcasts of cable networks CNBC and Fox News, digital children's network Qubo and startup digital music network Cool TV.

The “mobile” in mobile DTV broadcasts was also tipped off by another feature of the demonstration: a data stream of traffic and road information received by a prototype in-car navigation device.