Microtune Gets Video Moving

Microtune Inc. moves the industry one step closer to delivering live over-the-air TV to cellphones by introducing the first digital video broadcast cellular chip this week.

“All of the ingredients are now in place to implement this service in cellphones today,” says Microtune COO Albert “Bud” Taddiken.

The chip is compatible with DVB-H (the H stands for handheld), the European transmission standard designed to deliver live TV signals to cellphones.

Crown Castle USA, a division of UK-based Crown Castle International, acquired spectrum from the government to launch a DVB-H service. The company, which maintains and leases more than 11,000 cell towers to companies like Verizon Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile, plans to bring the terrestrial broadcast model to cellphones, using its towers and transmitters to send TV signals to millions of cellphones simultaneously. The company is conducting trials in Pittsburgh.

Live TV Signals

While current cellular video services like MobiTV and SmartVideo can deliver live TV, separate streams are required for each user, and cellular networks would quickly run out of capacity if there were millions of users.

If it can produce the chip as planned, Microtune, a publicly traded chip maker based in Plano, Texas, will get the jump on in-state rival Texas Instruments, which plans commercial deployment of a DVB-H chip in 2007.

Although technical issues still remain, marketing such a product at the right price may prove to be the greatest challenge. For instance, Verizon subscribers with the Vcast video service currently pay $15 a month to download clips from CNN, Fox Sports, ESPN and others.

But those subscribers, who will most likely be interested in adding live TV signals to their phones, may hesitate to pay additional charges for more video services. A $60 voice service plus $20 for data and another $30 for clip downloads and live-video services (for a total of $110 per month) would be enough to make even the earliest adopter think twice.

The DVB-H signal will deliver about 10 megabits per second (Mbps) of data—enough to transmit 27 video channels (each takes about 380 kilobits per second to deliver video at 30 frames per second).

Microtune's approach to the chip design will have some immediate benefits for the user and cellphone manufacturers, Taddiken says. Mobile phones face many more interference obstacles than typical TV signals because radio signals, microwave ovens and security systems can wreak havoc. Those problems are some of the reasons Microtune developed ClearTune, a patent-pending filtering technology that reduces interference to the receiver.

The biggest interference threat could be the phone itself. Cellphones have power amplifiers that transmit and receive voice signals to and from cellular towers. Those amplifiers, when activated, will interfere with DVB-H reception unless the phone has filters. Although it's doubtful someone would receive a voice call while watching TV on the phone, Taddiken says, cellphones do occasionally fire up the power amplifier to let local cell towers know where the phone is located. If that happens while the viewer is watching TV content, the video signal could be disrupted.


Another feature of the chipset is that it delivers channels as successive packet bursts on a signal “carousel.” The receiver chip, Taddiken says, is turned on only when it needs to receive the new packet for the channel being watched, saving the user about 90% of the power that would be required if it were turned on all the time.

The cost to add DVB-H tuner chips and the other technology needed to receive TV signals (such as the de-modulator and MPEG4 decoder) is around $10 per phone, with that cost expected to drop to about $5 in a couple of years. “The most expensive part of the technology, the processor, is actually already found in phones today,” says Taddiken.

Video services for cellphones have become a priority for TV and cellphone companies. VOD-style content is now available from such services as Verizon's Vcast, MobiTV and SmartVideo, and next-generation video services from Crown Castle and Qualcomm's MediaFLO promise to deliver up to 27 live video channels and even audio channels.

While companies like Crown Castle, Microtune and content providers are bullish on live video, Neil Strother, senior analyst with In-Stat (a B&C Reed Business Information sibling), is skeptical. He recently completed a study that found that only 11% of early adopters of new technology are very interested in broadcast-TV functionality on cellphones.

“The hype and investments in technology are here today,” he says, “but subscribers still aren't comfortable with cellphone video services.”