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NAB: Mobile Technologies Square Off

Complete Coverage: 2012 NAB Show

As many broadcasters are preparing to launch mobile DTV services, speakers and panelists at the Mobile Video and Mobile TV - Beyond YouTube session held Monday April 16 at NAB were somewhat divided on the best technological approaches to launching those services.

Much of the debate revolved around the best way to get devices into the market or to tap into technologies that could be easily compatible with existing technologies.

Peter Siebert, executive director of the DVB Project Office in Europe, stressed the importance of devices by noting that the DVB-H standard for mobile broadcasts had failed to take off in Europe because of the lack of devices in the market.

"The handset market is under the control of mobile carriers and heavily subsidized," Siebert noted. In contrast, the providers of mobile broadcasters "weren't willing to subsidize the devices so there were no devices," he said.

The device issue has been a major one for broadcasters trying to launch mobile DTV services. So far, they've had only limited success in getting device manufacturers to develop smartphones or tablets with mobile DTV chips included in the device. Samsung has agreed to produce a smartphone and LG was demoing one at NAB.

As a result, both group backing mobile broadcasts, the Mobile Content Venture (MCV) and the Mobile500 Alliance, have worked with outside manufacturers to create accessories, such as a dongle that can be attached to existing iPads or smartphones. These will be coming into the market but require an additional purchase.

For example, the Mobile500 Alliance has partnered with Elgato on a dongle for the iPad that will cost around $99.

In addition to the device issue, the keynote speaker, Peggy Johnson, executive VP and president, Global Market Development at Qualcomm, Inc. highlighted a number of technological alternatives to ATSC mobile broadcasts in her speech on Qualcomm's mobile strategies and their failed FLO TV initiative.

She noted that they launched FLO TV as a broadcast service they felt would be a more efficient way of delivering video than the traditional cellular architecture. The initiative ran into a number of problems, however, including difficulties with getting devices into the market, the cost of building a new infrastructure and getting access to content. Qualcomm shut FLO TV down last year.

Since then the company has between working on developing LTE broadcast technologies that would provide a flexible alternative to some of the capacity issues of current cellular networks. This technology would allow operators to switch part of their LTE network to broadcasts during a period when many people were accessing the same content -- something that usually crashes a cellular network -- and then switch back to unicast when the demand declined.

She stressed that the technologies would allow them to make these switches in local areas with particularly heavy demand. For example, a stadium during a game could be switched to LTE broadcasts when many people might be accessing video and then switched back to the unicast mode after the game.

Johnson felt that this approach and a variety of other newer and more flexible cellular technologies would be able to handle a great deal of the well-known bandwidth crunch facing mobile operators.

Johnson did not take questions from the audience but in a panel following her keynote, Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology at the Sinclair Broadcast Group quipped "her presentation should have scared the pants off of broadcasters."

Sinclair is a very active member of the Mobile500 Alliance and played an important role in the technology it is demoing at this year's NAB. Not surprisingly, Aitken stressed the importance of launching mobile DTV services using the ATSC M/H standard: "This is something we have to do. Mobile is the future of broadcasting."

But he also stressed that broadcasters need to push forward with a new broadcast standard that would be compatible with LTE. In the future, an LTE compatible broadcast standard would allow broadcasters to offer mobile broadcasts video using technology that would be compatible with the huge number of LTE-capable smartphones expected to come into the market in the next few years. This would eliminate the problem of getting wireless carriers to sell devices with mobile DTV chips.

"If we had standard that was an extension of LTE, we could be broadcasting over LTE with an extended chip set," Aitken argued. "It is how to get into all devices at the lowest cost point."

Salil Dalvi, co-general manager of MCV that is launching mobile broadcasts using the ATSC standards in markets covering about 55% of all U.S. homes disagreed.

He argued that they couldn't wait for a new standard to be developed and that it was possible to encourage device manufacturers to create mobile DTV-capable devices and to consumers to acquire them if they offered compelling content.

"The fastest way maybe to push investment to the device," he said. "If we can satisfy the consumer need first, ultimately carriers and other will see value" in offering mobile DTV devices.

Dalvi, who is also senior VP and general manager, strategic ventures, for NBCUniversal Digital Distribution, also strongly disputed a question from the audience that expressed frustration over the length of time it was taking to bring mobile DTV services to market.

He noted that they had developed a very compelling product, had convinced 92 stations to light up mobile DTV broadcast this year covering 55% of U.S. homes and had secured content from seven broadcast networks in the three years since the standard was created.

During the discussion, DVB's Siebert also argued that ultimately the industry may settle on a mix of technologies for delivering video. He argued that Wi-Fi networks might be most appropriate inside the home while broadcast would work best outdoors for very popular content and that more traditional cellular networks would end up handling more niche longtail content.

This debate also has massive long-term implications for the ownership structure of the broadcast industry and its finances. If broadcasters were to propose a standard compatible with the LTE standard, then they would moving much closer to the wireless carriers and telcos.

This might make them attractive takeover targets for global wireless players, which would significantly change the ownership structure of the industry that has long been focused on local markets.