Mobile DTV Picks Up Speed

With the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas only a month away, broadcasters' efforts to make mobile DTV receivers a viable new product category on both the show floor and retail shelves are moving at a fast pace.

Through the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), broadcasters have been working with consumer electronics manufacturers to develop new portable devices with tiny mobile DTV receiver chips embedded in them, including cellphones, USB dongles, a new LG personal DVD player and a Dell netbook. All of them will be demonstrated at CES in a "Mobile DTV Techzone" in the main hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. They will also show a new "bridge" device the size of a pack of cigarettes that will receive mobile DTV signals and then retransmit them via Wi-Fi networking, allowing smartphones, laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices to display broadcast content without requiring a built-in chip.

Next week in Washington, D.C., broadcast equipment vendors and consumer electronics manufacturers will conduct a "plugfest," organized by the Consumer Electronics Association, to test interoperability between their mobile DTV transmission gear and various consumer electronics devices. While in August the OMVC had used its Washington test-bed of seven mobile DTV stations to conduct conformance testing of mobile DTV equipment, that testing focused mainly on the "physical," or transmission, layer of the mobile DTV system and how it worked with new receiver chips.

"This is all the layers beyond the physical layer, such as the ESGs [Electronic Service Guides] and the software," said OMVC Executive Director Anne Schelle. "All the transmission companies will be in a different room, and they'll bring a device in and see if it interoperates."

Schelle notes that receiver manufacturers can also use model stations in Seattle and Atlanta to test their equipment against live mobile DTV broadcasts that conform to the ATSC Mobile DTV standard approved in mid-October.

While OMVC has organized technical tests and driven receiver development on behalf of some 800 stations, the organization's scope doesn't include negotiating business deals. Schelle had previously suggested that several large station groups would need to band together to negotiate agreements with wireless carriers on including mobile DTV capability in their phones and possibly sharing revenue generated by broadcasts to those phones, either from advertising or subscription fees. In an interview Wednesday morning, she said broadcasters would likely provide an update on their business models for mobile DTV at CES next month.

Several groups have already moved forward in pursuing such wireless deals, according to the Website TVNewsCheck, which reported this afternoon that Gannett, Media General, Hearst Television, Cox, Belo, Scripps, Ion Media, Raycom and Post-Newsweek had formed a joint venture called the "Pearl Project". According to the TVNewsCheck story, the joint venture is seeking to use its scale to raise capital and cut deals with carriers, receiver manufacturers, retailers, programmers and advertisers.

A Gannett spokeswoman declined to comment on the TVNewsCheck story on the "Pearl Project", while Raycom Media CTO Dave Folsom said he "could neither confirm nor deny" the existence of such a joint venture. Folsom did say that Raycom has already launched mobile DTV broadcasts at WBTV in Charlotte, N.C., and plans to do so soon at WSFA in Montgomery, Ala., in order to independently test mobile DTV service.

But Ardell Hill, president of broadcast services for Media General, confirmed that the substance of the TVNewsCheck report was accurate in terms of the players involved and the venture's overall goals. He said that discussions over business deals with carriers and other entities were being conducted at the CEO level by the groups involved, and that he had few details. Hill and other top engineers are part of a technical group that is vetting technology from various vendors on behalf of the joint venture.

The overall technical goals, said Hill, are not for the station groups to buy broadcast equipment en masse, but more to ensure that consumers nationwide will get a consistent experience in terms of the user interface and picture quality. He said the group had initially planned to announce its intentions at CES.

Media General isn't currently broadcasting mobile DTV in any of its markets. Hill cautioned that the groups involved in the venture would focus on launching service in large markets with multiple partner stations, such as Tampa, over small markets like Columbus, Ga., since the initial goal is to hit the largest density of people.

"You can hit a large amount of the population with the top 30 markets," he notes. "If you're in the top 30 markets with a dozen or more signals in the air, consumers are going to say, ‘Wow, this is pretty neat, this is going to be good.' I think that's generally the mindset for the launch, and us guys on the technical side have been asked to find the best way to get it up and running."