TV on the Go at CES

While much of the hype at CES was about using the Internet to deliver video to TV sets, the biggest technology news at last week's giant consumer-electronics show was about sending live television to cellphones and other mobile devices. Verizon Wireless said it will launch V Cast Mobile TV in the first quarter; Modeo announced that its mobile-TV service is being tested live in New York City. Samsung, meanwhile, demonstrated a potential enhancement to the U.S. digital-television standard, Advanced-Vestigial Side-Band (A-VSB), which would allow portable and mobile devices to receive standard-definition video streams from local broadcasters.

The wireless progress was highlighted at the conference by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a session he shared with Consumer Electronics Association chief Gary Shapiro. Martin cited the “possibilities of mobile TV” and noted the commission's role in helping Qualcomm, which is providing the technology for the Verizon service, operate on reclaimed UHF spectrum. He also enjoyed Samsung's demonstration, which involved riding in a bus around Las Vegas as a small prototype media-player device captured an A-VSB signal.

That was an example of the innovative services that could be offered through the digital spectrum, said Martin: “The ability for consumers to watch television on another device would be very popular.”

A-VSB, first shown at the NAB show last April, then tested with Sinclair Broadcast Group in Buffalo in the fall, uses a forward-error-correction technique called turbo-coding to dramatically improve reception in difficult signal environments. Turbo-coding trades bits for signal robustness; the stream of 3 megabits per second (Mbps) demonstrated in Vegas delivered usable video of 750 kilobits per second (kbps), which looked quite good on the prototype mobile player.

Helping out were German transmitter manufacturer Rohde & Schwarz and Sinclair station KVMY, whose transmitter on Black Mountain, some 13 miles south of the Las Vegas Convention Center, broadcast the A-VSB signal.

The idea behind A-VSB is that it is backwards-compatible with the existing 8-VSB transmission system. It would allow turbo-coded streams of lower-resolution video, suitable for viewing on PDAs or cellphones, to be delivered alongside a high-definition broadcast within a single TV channel. To help mobile receivers lock in on the turbo-coded stream and fight dynamic multipath interference, A-VSB includes a special reference signal called Supplementary Reference Sequence (SRS) that can also aid the reception of a station's primary HD broadcasts.

A-VSB is being evaluated by the ATSC, the digital-TV standards body, and Samsung hopes it will be approved in the first half of this year. If that occurs, commercial products with A-VSB receivers, such as PDAs and automobiles, could hit the market as soon as 2008. “We're offering a way for U.S. broadcasters to get additional value out of their DTV spectrum,” says Samsung VP John Godfrey. “No one's offered them something like that for a long time.”

To that point, Verizon's V Cast Mobile TV actually uses UHF spectrum on Channel 55 that was previously occupied by broadcasters (stations in channels 52-69 are moving as part of the digital-TV transition). It's now owned by Qualcomm subsidiary MediaFLO, which is providing the service on a wholesale basis to Verizon and negotiating deals with programmers.

Network Programming

The V Cast Mobile service, pricing for which was not disclosed, will feature content from CBS, Fox, NBC and MTV Networks that can be received on new mobile phones from LG and Samsung. The programming will not simply be a simulcast of existing shows, according to John Stratton, Verizon executive VP/chief marketing officer, but “the best of what TV has to offer.”

For example, one channel demonstrated by Qualcomm executives on a Samsung phone was a compilation of programming from NBC News, including content from MSNBC, Today and Nightly News With Brian Williams. Stratton also suggested that V Cast Mobile TV will carry live television, such as sporting events.

The service will not launch with content from local broadcasters, although Stratton says V Cast Mobile TV has the “ability, over time, to build in local programming.” V Cast Mobile will first be offered in East and West Coast programming blocks, similar to satellite services.

MediaFLO, which is up and running in several test markets, including Vegas, has been hampered by interference concerns from broadcasters and a drawn-out review of those by the FCC.

The commission finally set an interference threshold for the service in October.

V Cast Mobile should have about 20 channels at launch, and seven were live on-air at CES. The MediaFLO service has been tested with about 4,000 consumers nationwide, and MediaFLO has also done trials with Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile.

Says MediaFLO President Gina Lombardi, “People who already love TV really love the service.”

She may be getting competition from Modeo, which has launched a beta test of its own mobile-TV service in New York. A subsidiary of Crown Castle International, it began distributing Modeo Mobile TV Smartphones, which receive live broadcasts using the DVB-H transmission standard, in late December.

The trial will run with several hundred participants, including wireless carriers, reporters, analysts and content providers, through the first quarter of 2007.

Modeo President Michael Ramke says it should help Crown Castle decide whether to push ahead with a commercial mobile-TV service.

“We're trying to figure out if this is a novelty, and will people pay for it?” says Ramke.

Satellite Feed To New York

Modeo is ingesting content at its “headend” in Pittsburgh and transmitting it via satellite feeds to New York, where dish antennas feed it to local transmitters.

Modeo has 65 DVB-H transmitters, which are connected to cellular-style antennas (4 to 6 feet long, mounted a height of 200-400 feet), spread throughout the New York market. Its signals, which run in a frequency higher than the TV broadcast band, cover a geographic area with 8.5 million potential customers, says Ramke.

In Las Vegas, Modeo was using a single transmitter to demonstrate three live channels: Fox News, Discovery and Music Choice.

The demos were done in partnership with Microsoft, which provides its Windows Media Player technology, and HTC, the developer and manufacturer of the Modeo Smartphone.

While Modeo is some distance away from deciding whether to commercialize its service and strike deals with cellular carriers, Ramke was already taking meetings with broadcasters in Las Vegas to discuss how they could provide local content to the service.

“There are no restrictions on what we can broadcast,” he says, “and local is extremely important.”