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Special Report: Mobile DTV Heats Up

Two years’ worth of work by broadcasters and technology vendors to develop a way for stations to transmit video to cellphones, laptops and other portable devices is starting to produce tangible results. A multi-station trial of the new mobile digital TV (DTV) technology kicks off in Washington, D.C., later this month, and a formal technical standard is expected by September. Individual stations in markets such as New York and Raleigh, N.C., are already broadcasting mobile DTV full-time, and a total of 70 stations across 28 markets have pledged to offer mobile DTV streams by year-end.

While the business models for mobile DTV are still being worked out, the technology got a boost toward commercialization last week when the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the U.S. digital TV standards body, raised the candidate ATSC-Mobile/Handheld (ATSC-M/H) standard to “proposed standard” status. A final standard could be in place by September, paving the way for consumer receiver devices to hit retail shelves in 2010.

“What we’ve all been shooting for is a complete standard by the end of the year, and there is no reason for concern in meeting that objective,” says Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group and chair of the ATSC specialist group that drafted the ATSC-M/H standard.

Much of the standards work, including technology evaluations and field trials, has been spearheaded by the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a group of some 800 stations that have come together to promote mobile DTV. OMVC members helped broker a deal in May 2008 between consumer electronics giants LG and Samsung to avoid a prolonged standards battle between the two companies’ competing mobile DTV systems.

Since then, OMVC has kept pushing the process, announcing commercial rollout plans at the Consumer Electronics Show last January. The group selected Atlanta and Seattle as markets where “model stations” such as Gannett’s WATL and Belo’s KONG are broadcasting mobile DTV streams that vendors can use to check the performance of their products.

OMVC’s latest project is the seven-station mobile DTV trial in Washington, expected to go live by the end of the month. Participating stations include Ion’s WPXW; Gannett’s WUSA, a CBS affiliate; Fox’s WDCA; NBC’s WRC; WHUT, a PBS station owned and operated by Howard University; WNVT, the home of multicasting service MHz Networks; and WNUV, the CW affiliate in Baltimore run by Sinclair. The initial plan is for each station to broadcast a minimum of two mobile channels apiece, along with some electronic service-guide and alert data.

While initially billed as a consumer trial, the first phase of the work in D.C. will be to conduct “conformance testing” of some 20 vendors’ products, using the ATSC-M/H standard as it stood at NAB (software upgrades should be able to reconcile existing mobile DTV gear with the final standard). Real-world testing by consumers will comprise the second phase of the project and likely won’t happen until early 2010, when a meaningful volume of receiver devices should be available.

“Right now, we’re pulling together a full platform and all the partners, so we’re able to receive all the channels this summer,” says OMVC Executive Director Anne Schelle. “We won’t have consumers running around with anything until January.”

The scarcity of prototype ATSC-M/H receivers is one challenge facing the industry. Engineers say there are only about two dozen prototype cellphones around the country, along with a smattering of USB “dongle” receivers that can be plugged into a laptop.

“We’re really at a stage like the initial launch of DTV back in 1998,” says ION VP of Technology Brett Jenkins. “There are almost going to be more transmitters transmitting mobile than receive devices on the market, and that’s probably what you’ll see for the next six to nine months.”

Obviously, cellphone manufacturers aren’t going to rush to mass-produce ATSC-M/H-capable handsets until a final standard is in place and, more important, broadcasters have reached some agreement with wireless carriers on making their mobile DTV programming available to subscribers. However, there is a range of devices besides cellphones that could offer mobile DTV reception capability, such as accessory USB dongles, netbooks, portable DVD players and in-car displays.

LG, which developed the base transmission system for ATSC-M/H in partnership with Harris, began producing receiver chips in volume last month, according to VP of Public Affairs John Taylor, and is providing samples to third-party manufacturers, including makers of USB dongles. LG’s focus through the fourth quarter is on building more receivers to support trials like the one in Washington. But Taylor says LG is on track to ship retail product next year.

“We anticipate having product in the market for consumers to purchase in 2010,” Taylor says. “We haven’t announced any specific product plans or timing. But we’ve already had very positive discussions with retailers, and they’re excited about the opportunity.”