Mobile TV Takes Flight

A coalition of almost 800 local stations is working to bring live over-the-air broadcast TV to mobile television devices within a year.

The broadcasting groups are working with the digital TV (DTV) standard body Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) to create a new technology standard. Getting that accomplished will allow broadcasters to transmit live video and non-real-time data services to mobile phones and other handheld devices via their existing digital TV spectrum, without interfering with their current high-definition or standard-definition programming.

Using the DTV spectrum to tap the mobile market is “basically sitting here as a big fat option to be capitalized,” says ION Media Networks president and CEO Brandon Burgess. Burgess is spearheading broadcasters' mobile TV efforts as president of the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), which he helped form last spring.

The goal is to have the technology standard in place by Feb. 17, 2009, when analog TV broadcasts will cease. At that time, telcos and Internet companies are expected to launch new wireless services on the reclaimed broadcast spectrum.

A Broad Opportunity

In a world where most viewers watch TV through cable or satellite connections, broadcasters' plan to beam signals to cellphones represents a multi-faceted opportunity. It's also a competitive differentiator for their local content against cable programmers and Internet content providers that rely on fixed connections to reach consumers.

Not least of all, it's a large and potentially lucrative new market for advertising and subscription revenues at a time local TV faces an onslaught of competition.

For station groups, mobile TV may also be a way for their local network affiliates to keep a foothold in the new-media space, where major broadcast networks have largely made content deals on a national basis.

Primetime network programming is now available on the Internet, either free through advertising-supported portals or download services like Apple's iTunes. Qualcomm's MediaFLO, the only live mobile TV broadcast service currently operating, features channels from CBS, Fox and NBC, but no local content.

“It's too obvious for people not to want to turn on spectrum for servicing 400 million devices,” says Burgess. He believes, for example, that broadcasting to automobiles and laptop computers may represent an even bigger opportunity than cellphones.

With that in mind, one requirement for the proposed ATSC Mobile and Handheld (ATSC-M/H) standard is the ability to deliver signals to mobile devices traveling at highway speeds, as well as the option of pushing non-real-time programming and data to storage devices.

Startup costs would be $100,000 or less per station, says Burgess, and would mainly involve connecting a new, additional signal exciter to a station's existing DTV transmitter and installing new encoding gear. But the payoff could be big. For the Washington market, where seven coalition stations are located, OMVC estimates that if mobile TV were to create just 10% incremental TV viewing, local ad revenues could be as much as $55 million. That's before additional revenues from national advertising or subscription services for features like round-the-clock traffic or weather updates.

The OMVC, which has enlisted financial support from the National Association of Broadcasters and technical help from the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), represents 422 commercial stations in 142 markets covering 103 million U.S. TV households, as well as 361 public TV stations. Members include station groups ION, Belo, Fox, Gannett, Gray, NBC/Telemundo, Sinclair, Tribune, Cox, Dispatch, Freedom, LIN, Meredith, Media General, Post-Newsweek, Raycom, Schurz and the Association of Public Television Stations.

Record Clip

While the ATSC is historically slow-moving, the effort to create a new mobile and handheld standard is moving at a record clip. The ATSC formally began the process last April, requested technical proposals in May and received submissions from 10 different mobile DTV proponents in June. Field demonstrations should begin this winter. The goal is to have a workable product by Feb. 17, 2009, the day broadcasters turn off their analog signal and switch to digital.

Burgess hadn't dealt with the ATSC before, but knew its reputation was that “it takes everything five years to get done.” But not this time. “They have moved, by any stretch of the imagination, at lightning speed on this, particularly because broadcasters are unified around the idea,” says Burgess, who adds that manufacturers have also been “unusually responsive” to broadcasters' requests.

“Q1 2009 is the target date,” says Mark Aitken, Sinclair's director of advanced technology and chair of the ATSC working group that is leading the process. “What does that mean? The objectives are that there is some level of field deployment in a preliminary stage underway.”

ATSC president Mark Richer is impressed by the energy the OMVC has put into the project. “I don't remember a time, even during the development of the DTV standard itself, where broadcasters showed so much enthusiasm for any one thing and a willingness to work together like they are,” he says.

The technical challenge that ATSC-M/H represents for manufacturers is not trivial. It requires the transmission of robust signals to small, portable devices within the existing 6 megahertz (MHz) DTV channel, without interfering with the core programming services stations are already providing with their 19.4 megabits of digital throughput.

The request for proposals that the ATSC circulated in May asked for a system that could not only deliver live, advertiser-supported TV to cellphones, but also support subscription services, non-real-time download services for on-demand playback, datacasting applications, interactive TV and real-time navigation data for automobiles.

Preliminary proposals were submitted by 10 companies and/or groups of companies, including Coding Technologies; Coherent Logix; DTS; LG Electronics and Harris Corp.; Mobile DTV Alliance; Micronas Semiconductor; Nokia; Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Rohde & Schwarz; Thomson; and Qualcomm. Some proposals related to full mobile DTV systems, such as MPH (Mobile Pedestrian Handheld) from LG/Harris and A-VSB (Advanced-Vestigial Side Band) from Samsung/Rohde & Schwarz, both of which were demonstrated at the NAB show in Las Vegas last April. Others covered specialized areas, such as audio coding or graphics.

More documentation from vendors was due to the ATSC last month. Some vendors joined forces: handset giant Nokia has aligned itself with Samsung and Rohde & Schwarz, while Thomson and Micronas are working together on their own complete system.

The field demonstrations this winter will focus on the transmission system, or “physical layer,” that will be used to deliver signals to mobile phones. Sterling Davis, VP of engineering for Cox Broadcasting and head of a technology working group within OMVC that is directing the field demonstration process, cautions that they are only demonstrations, not formal tests.

“It's a hurdle to weed out systems that are being proposed on paper that don't have the viability of working hardware,” says Davis, who created a plan to demonstrate the A-VSB and MPH systems in two markets, as well as systems from Thomson/Micronas and Coherent Logix.

ATSC Chairman Glenn Reitmeier, who is also VP of technology standards and policy for NBC Universal, expects that field work will be wrapped up by April and that the ATSC may be deciding on the physical layer soon. Says Reitmeier, “I think you'll be seeing some fundamental decisions made in May or June.”

The MPH system, which LG and Harris formally documented in an 80-page submission to the ATSC last month, has been undergoing continual development since it was first unveiled at the NAB show, says LG Electronics President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. H.G. Lee.

LG has created an MPH receiver chip that will allow it to soon demonstrate much smaller form-factor mobile devices than the “big box” it used to demonstrate MPH in Las Vegas, says Lee. Such devices would have a single antenna less than three inches long. But for the purposes of the IDOV demonstrations, it will still use the same type of Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip device often used in field testing.

Harris Broadcast vice president Jay Adrick adds that the MPH system has “a very active testing schedule” set up with local broadcasters in as many as a dozen markets through mid-2008, but won't reveal details.

Samsung has been steadily refining its A-VSB system since first demonstrating it in a shuttle bus at CES last January, says Samsung Electronics Vice President John Godfrey, who hints that there could be some surprises from the A-VSB camp at this year's CES show.

Godfrey considers Nokia's decision to join forces with Samsung, a competing handset maker, a major coup. “Having Nokia filing a joint technical proposal with us, we think, underscores our commitment to having an open standard with multiple vendors and multiple solution providers,” says Godfrey. “We think that's really important for broadcasters and consumers.”

While some broadcasters have worried about a standards battle between A-VSB and MPH, Burgess is optimistic that can be avoided.

“Our hope is to come to a compromise, inclusive solution where everybody wins—the consumers win, the broadcasters win and the manufacturers win,” he says. “It's all about the scale of deployment, and the manufacturers know that. A bigger share of a smaller pie is not as good as a decent share of a much bigger pie.”