Qualcomm Goes With the MediaFLO

Regardless of whether cellphone users are demanding it, the drive to deliver TV content to them is picking up steam. Sometime late next year, Qualcomm will join the ranks of technology companies vying to become a major player in a business that so far has spurred only minor interest among consumers.

Currently, cellphone-video technology using services such as MobiTV or Vcast can be a cumbersome proposition that requires users to establish a one-to-one connection with a video source, as if they were accessing a Web site. Popular video services are vulnerable to being swamped by requests, resulting in slower speeds and denials of access. Qualcomm and another aspiring TV-by-phone supplier slated to launch in 2006, Crown Castle, intend to leapfrog existing technology and essentially broadcast directly to phones. The key ingredient: microchips that turn cellphones into wireless TV receivers.

While Crown Castle is relying on the European DVB-H standard, Qualcomm has spent $800 million on a project to develop its own system specifically for cellphones, called MediaFLO (Forward Link Only). Both companies will enlist cellular-service providers to handle the marketing and sales of their services while administering the programming and distribution issues themselves.

Inserting Local Content

Jeffrey Lorbeck, VP/general manager of Qualcomm's MediaFLO division, is overseeing the service's development. He says that one of MediaFLO's advantages in the race to get phone users hooked on TV is that Qualcomm's effort isn't based on legacy technologies (DVB-H, for example, is a mobile version of the DVB-T terrestrial transmission scheme). The technology opens new capabilities: “We can actually insert local content into a nationally provided content stream, black out content, and even push content to handsets,” Lorbeck says. “We envision a basic package of things like news, sports and prime time content, and then a premium package for the sports fanatic that will push content so it will be waiting for the user when they turn on the phone.”

Qualcomm has a MediaFLO trial under way in San Diego, using video from several content providers, and in the coming months will be negotiating carriage deals with TV networks. Partners will be given a percentage of every paid subscription.

“The model is highly analogous to the way the cable industry works,” says Lorbeck, adding, “There will also be different rate cards based on the number of subscribers.”

Lorbeck says the capacity of the Qualcomm network will allow each channel to utilize 6 to 11 Mbps of data—sufficient to push not only video but also audio services and even data files to the user. Plans currently call for the company to offer 15 channels of video, 10 channels of audio streams, 40 channels of video clips, and data as well.

“We'll be able to do up to 20 real-time streams at 30 frames per second,” Lorbeck says. The frame rate will adjust to best utilize bandwidth so that a talking-head program can be delivered at 20 fps but an action-filled sports program can get the full 30 fps.

Though Qualcomm is already nearly a billion dollars into its investment, the company believes that MediaFLO at least has the advantage of requiring a relatively inexpensive infrastructure rollout. The strength of the Qualcomm's 50-kW transmitters, Lorbeck says, means that the company will only have to build one-fiftieth the number of towers that Crown Castle will need in order to attain the same coverage area with its DVB-H signal. Then again, one of Crown Castle's businesses is building towers; the company already has access to about 11,000 of them across the country. Crown Castle takes comfort in the tower array's assurance that its signal won't be lost in dead spots. “You can look at a pretty map of coverage areas, but that doesn't show areas where there might be interference,” says Michael Ramke, Crown Castle VP, marketing and business development.

The Push Function

Qualcomm is especially hopeful that MediaFLO's push function will prove popular with consumers and broadcasters. “If someone has two minutes between meetings, they'll be able to turn on their phone and watch a news update that could be already sitting on the phone,” he says. Unless, of course, they just check out a news Web site on their BlackBerry or computer.

Qualcomm and Crown Castle will join a burgeoning field that includes not only cellular services like MobiTV and Vcast but also Sony PSP Connect, a new service that lets owners of Sony's handheld PlayStation device download video clips via WiFi. ABC News is the first TV network service to deliver content to the PSP. “We're delivering content we think that audience would be interested in, specifically our program Ahead of the Curve, which talks about technology,” says Bernie Gershon, ABC News Digital Media Group senior VP/general manager. “We're also creating new content, including music reviews, because it's an opportunity to reach a new audience on a great-looking screen.”

Just how popular these wireless services will be, remains to be seen. In-Stat, a sister division of B&C publisher Reed Business Information, issued a report last week that warned of lukewarm interest in multimedia handsets, even from early adopters. Less than 11% of those surveyed were very or extremely interested in broadcast-TV functionality on the cellphone. The report predicts cellphone-video–related revenue will hit $150 million by 2009.

The mantra of the industry calls for the delivery of television programming anytime, anywhere; the hope is that enough people will care.