Mobile DTV: What’s Taking So Long?

Mobile digital television promises to revolutionize the way Americans watch sports, news, and other live content, yet its development has been fraught with speed bumps as it struggles to find a viable business model and widespread deployment. A nationwide Mobile DTV service could provide sorely needed new revenue sources for broadcasters, but Mobile DTV remains in its infancy here in the U.S. This raises the question: What’s taking so long?

“I think the industry as a whole had a lack of vision in 1999 and 2000,” Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group, said during a Mobile DTV-focused panel at the Content & Communications World show last week. “Most broadcasters looked around and said, ‘Why would we want to do mobile? When it becomes important, we will think about doing something, but not until then.’”

However, networks and affiliates have worked together to accelerate the maturation of these services since the ATSC approved the ATSC-M/H (A/153) Mobile DTV standard in October 2009.

“There is no question in my mind that broadcasting has to go mobile,” said ATSC President Mark Richer. “That is what broadcasting is going to end up focusing on in the future. If we can get broadcast signals into untethered mobile devices, that is going to be a fabulous business and public service. I have no doubt that is exactly what is going to happen. Because, if it does not, then broadcasting is just going to fade away. But I don’t think that is the case.”

Two Players, One Game
In April 2010, the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) launched the Mobile DTV consumer showcase in Washington, DC, a study that tracked 360 individuals as they were exposed to Mobile DTV on a variety of devices. Since then, the OMVC has continued its efforts, but two separate organizations have the led the way in development of Mobile DTV: the Mobile Content Venture (MCV) and the Mobile500 Alliance.

Formed in April 2010, MCV comprises 12 major broadcast groups, including Fox, NBC, Ion, and Pearl Mobile DTV (itself comprising nine local TV broadcasters). By the end of 2011, MCV aims to roll out more than 70 live Mobile DTV stations in at least 32 markets covering 50% of the U.S. population, with at least two free ad-supported channels in each DMA. To receive the mobile video service, consumers will need a device capable of receiving and decrypting an ATSC-M/H signal. MCV is currently working with consumer-electronics manufacturers to ensure that these devices have the appropriate chip sets and plans to launch the service — branded Dyle — next year.

“Our view is that this will be a virtuous cycle that rides its own momentum,” said Erik Moreno, Co-GM of MVC and SVP of corporate development for Fox Networks Group. “Our goal was to break the chicken-and-egg problem and to get a network investment that would convince hardware guys to invest. I’m very pleased with where we are. I know for sure that consumers will be enjoying a Mobile DTV service in 2012.”

The Mobile500 Alliance, meanwhile, consists of 46 member companies, which operate 420 stations reaching 92% of U.S. TV households. Mobile500 plans to launch 15-20 Mobile DTV channels in markets across the country, with a mix of free and subscription channels along with VOD content and data services delivered via Mobile DTV as well as 3G/4G and WiFi networks. However, the launch schedule for these services has yet to be finalized.

“Mobile is a core element of every broadcaster’s strategy, at least any broadcaster that wants to be relevant in the future,” said Aitken, who is a Mobile500 board member. “Getting on board with Mobile DTV today is critical to learning a business that is fundamentally different than the business that broadcasters have been in for the past 70 years.”

It’s All About Scalability
According to the panel, approximately 40% of all mobile traffic today is video consumption. That figure is expected to leap to 66% by 2014. This presents a troubling situation for wireless carriers, which already see overcrowding on their 3G and 4G LTE networks. However, this also offers a golden opportunity for broadcasters and Mobile DTV, which boast a one-to-many delivery architecture that is almost infinitely scalable.

“There is a tsunami of data coming that is going to change everything,” said Moreno. “The opportunity ahead of us as broadcasters is incredible. Ultimately, with this [Mobile DTV] architecture, which I estimate to cost $100 million-$150 million to have a nationwide broadcast network, is fairly de minimis when you consider that Sprint is about to spend $10 billion rolling out their 4G LTE network.

“Mobile DTV will resonate with consumers because, in a data-capped world, video is the killer app,” he continued. “So there is no alternative for the consumer or the carrier right now. We are trying to make sure that we have these chip sets integrated in all devices so we can provide that alternative.”

Where Does the Spectrum Battle Fit in?
For more than a year, a spectrum battle has been raging on Capitol Hill, pitting broadcasters against broadband and wireless-cellular providers. The FCC wants to reclaim a large chunk of broadcasters’ wireless spectrum in order to reallocate it for new broadband services and possibly auction it off to the highest bidder.

This threatens to stall development of Mobile DTV because the necessary spectrum would no longer be available to many broadcasters. In addition, broadband and wireless providers would gain additional capacity to build out their networks.

“You have a situation where our spectrum is being coveted by what I look at as some fairly lazy folks, who find it a lot easier just to get more spectrum rather than building out additional infrastructure,” said Aitken. “Assuming [we are able to retain our spectrum], figuring out how to monetize broadcast on a mobile front is something that has to be mastered. If we don’t master it, the wireless guys will.”

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