June 3, 2009

mobile video: the next generation

In a matter of days (June 12th), broadcasters will cease using analog technology to transmit their signals – and mobile video will never be the same.


When broadcasting becomes exclusively digital, whole new worlds will open up for a business that has previously never been a mobile player despite being “wireless.” While each television station retains the same amount of spectrum, digital technology allows much more to be done in the same bandwidth. One of these new applications will be mobile Digital TV (Mobile DTV).

Mobile DTV services will use a modified version of the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s (ATSC) standard called ATSC-M/H (for mobile handheld). The standard enables existing digital TV (DTV) broadcasters to transmit mobile-accessible content in-band with their regular DTV services. To leverage the opportunity, over 800 local television stations have banded together in the Open Mobile Video Coalition to coordinate the rollout. The typical station is expected to offer at least one channel to mobile devices.

Far from being a threat to wireless carriers, this new development offers an opportunity to expand mobile video offerings by offloading the bandwidth demands onto other networks. Using mobile spectrum for bandwidth-hogging video is an expensive proposition for carriers. Estimates are that it costs roughly $1 to deliver five minutes of broadcast-quality video over mobile spectrum. In addition, too many consumers streaming video at the same time can bring a cell site to its knees and impact the ability to deliver bread-and-butter voice service. AT&T’s recent decision to make the video service Slingbox available on the iPhone (News - Alert) only if it is confined to WiFi illustrates how sensitive carriers have become to the bandwidth-hogging nature of video.

Qualcomm sought to solve this problem by investing over $1 billion in its MediaFLO service. MediaFLO offloads the bandwidth demands to Qualcomm’s (News - Alert) own spectrum, yet uses the wireless carriers as the distribution vehicle. The Media FLO service charges a monthly subscription fee on top of the regular wireless subscription.

That same idea has been embraced by TV broadcasters; but for a free, ad-supported service. As incumbent players in the broadcast television business, these entities already possess content, advertiser relationships, and distribution networks (including free spectrum from the government). These assets can be extended to wireless devices for a relatively minimal incremental investment of around $100,000 per station. The same ad-supported, free-to-the-consumer model that has been the backbone of television broadcasting will now be the underpinning of mobile DTV.

And the new mobile video won’t be limited to just small screens. At the recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention the show-stealer was Dell (News - Alert) Computer’s demonstration of their new broadcast-equipped Netbook. At the very time when wireless carriers are launching efforts to promote Netbooks as the new means of accessing their 3G spectrum, Dell (and presumably others) are turning the device into a free television platform that does not use the wireless carriers’ spectrum.

But wait, there’s more! (in the true tradition of television infomercials). Mobile DTV is based on digital and IP technologies and can therefore do far more than transmit streaming audio and video.

Further, mobile devices are computers possessing more functionality than traditional televisions and often include features like local storage, CPUs and keypads. The result is that Mobile DTV broadcasters will not only be offering television content, but also the kind of widgets that have become commonplace on the Web. These new content widgets will contain non-real time information such as program guides, sports scores and weather. The widgets will bring consumers the Web-like on-demand content experience they increasingly expect, but delivered with the reach and efficiency of broadcast networks. Imagine the opportunity for broadcasters to enhance their mobile programming with related content (for which, of course, they can charge advertisers).

The opportunity for broadcasters to get into what was once exclusively the domain of wireless carriers has not been lost on the television networks. After being caught flat-footed by YouTube, the networks coalesced around Hulu (News - Alert) for the Web distribution of their programming. Now the networks are looking at doing what they do best: creating programming to be delivered by local broadcasters to their new mobile viewers. Think “mobile broadcast Hulu:” the best of TV delivered to your mobile device on DTV spectrum.

All of this only serves to enrich the mobile video model which can now become a cross between cable TV’s basic and premium services and the Internet’s long tail. Those who want the retransmission of broadcast television content will get it from ATSC-M/H. Consumers who want premium content will be able to buy it from services like MediaFLO. And the long tail of one-off, specialized video will still be available via 3G video streaming.

The opportunity for broadcasters to get into what was once exclusively the domain of wireless carriers has not been lost on the television networks. After being caught flat-footed by YouTube, the networks coalesced around Hulu (News - Alert) for the Web distribution of their programming. Now the networks are looking at doing what they do best: creating programming to be delivered by local broadcasters to their new mobile viewers. Think “mobile broadcast Hulu:” the best of TV delivered to your mobile device on DTV spectrum.

It is another demonstration of how the mobile carriers’ greatest asset isn’t just their spectrum – it is the relationship with their subscribers. The new world of mobile video promises to enrich the carriers’ offerings to its subscribers, increase revenue by selling access, bandwidth or both, and to accomplish this all on someone else’s spectrum.

The DTV conversion means a lot more than needing to buy a converter so your old TV set will continue to work. It also means yet another new beginning in wireless.