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Mobile TV faces a physical match during World Cup

Posted: 15 Jun 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:World Cup? mobile TV? DVB-H? DMB? Digital Multimedia Broadcast?

The World Cup is revealing an inconvenient truth to the thousands of Italians and Germans trying to watch the games on their cellphones: The physical world is the enemy of mobile TV.

Can users watch a match on a handset LCD in bright sunlight? Almost impossible. Can they curl up in bed to enjoy a game in cellular solitude? It'd be tough: Most mobile-TV broadcast infrastructure is aimed at outdoor coverage.

Can users trust their handsets not to drop frames as the match-winning goal is scored? Not if they're relying on streaming video from a third-generation network. "If there are more than seven users per 3G cell, it's coming to a grinding halt," said Dominic Strowbridge, marketing director at U.K. carrier BT Movio.

Even when a match is beamed via DVB-H or DMB infrastructure, separate from a UMTS 3G network, geography profoundly affects quality-of-service. "It's not a uniform science," said Steve Turner, business development manager for mobile broadcast at Philips Semiconductors.

Nonetheless, this month's world soccer championships are shaping up as a defining moment for mobile TV. Debitel in Germany and Italy's 3 Italia are broadcasting all the games live, in their entirety, instead of just offering snippets. Thousands of Italian subscribers began watching last Friday on their DVB-H mobile phones. At the same time, German subscribers were watching in Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart and Frankfurt, using Terrestrial-Digital Multimedia Broadcast (T-DMB)-based handsets.

Elsewhere, some 3G network operators in Europe are streaming World Cup highlights, near-live replays of each goal or match results via cellular networks.

The World Cup '06 user experience will directly affect next-generation handset chip and system designs, further investment by network operators to enable indoor coverage and a possible hybrid broadcast/streaming infrastructure in the future.

The performance level is particularly important, said Yannick Levy, CEO of DiBcom, a French fabless semiconductor vendor specializing in digital mobile TV. "If your demodulator can provide performance improvement by 3 to 4dB!which our chip does!it results in 50 to 60 percent savings for network operators, as they need to install fewer repeaters," he said.

Although it's a 3G operator, 3 Italia chose to build its own DVB-H-based mobile-TV broadcast network, independent of its cellular network. Debitel, Germany's fourth largest mobile operator, is offering TV services using the existing DAB receivers" target=_blank>Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) digital radio infrastructure.

The biggest difference between DVB-H and DAB-based T-DMB is the number of available channels. 3 Italia is currently offering nine mobile-TV channels, increasing to 14 by mid-July. Debitel has launched four TV channels, two "visual radio" channels (mainly music, with some graphics and text) and free access to DAB radio channels.

Regardless of differences in network infrastructure, the World Cup is triggering "trials on a grand scale" for mobile TV, observed Jim Hall, CEO of DAB specialist RadioScape Ltd. In a recent BT Movio trial, 38 percent of people said they were prepared to switch networks to receive mobile TV. "That sent a shiver of anxiety down the spine of operators," said Hall.

Italians were the first to embrace GSM 10 years ago, and more Italians are signing up for 3G cellphone services quickly. Thus, said DiBcom's Levy, "If it [mobile TV] doesn't happen in Italy, it won't happen anywhere in the world."

So far, network choice has been largely determined by spectrum availability.

3 Italia was able to quickly launch its own DVB-H network by using the 474MHz to 746MHz spectrum it acquired when it bought Italy's Channel 7. Not everyone in Europe is so lucky. T-DMB, based on the digital radio broadcast infrastructure, is catching up quickly in Germany, partly because the infrastructure exists and DVB-H spectrum space is hard to find in that country.

Nevertheless, four German network operators-E-Plus, O2, T-Mobile and Vodafone D2-worked with regional media authorities to kick-start broad-scale trials in Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover and Munich in time for the World Cup. T-System is serving as a DVB-H platform operator, broadcasting 14 TV and six radio programs. Handsets used in the evaluation are supplied by BenQ, Motorola, Nokia, Sagem and Samsung. "This will be the first time multiple DVB-H handsets!compliant with a single terminal profile!in several thousand units in total are used for interoperability testing," said Turner of Philips Semiconductors.

The United Kingdom is another country where spectrum availability is severely constrained. BT Movio, a wholesaler of mobile-TV broadcast networks, may be one of the most forward-thinking operators when it comes to planning future mobile-TV infrastructure. Scheduled this summer to launch mobile-TV services for wholesale, BT Movio is using another flavor of DAB called DAB-IP. Using the DAB pipe, BT Movio will send IP streams. Virgin Mobile has signed up as its first mobile operator. "We believe in the Internet thing," said BT Movio's Strowbridge.

Once the company has built an IP-based broadcast infrastructure, BT Movio can run IP across the platform by plugging in additional networks like 3G cellular, Wi-Fi, WiMAX and DVB-H in the future, he explained. "Consumers don't have to know where their programs are coming from."

More specifically, the 3G cellular network is good for video-on-demand applications, said Strowbridge, giving consumers access to a specific program to "catch up with the water cooler conversation." It's also good for "roaming" purposes. Viewers vacationing in southern France, where the DAB-IP network may not be available, can still tune in to a British soap opera via 3G or the Internet, he said.

To BT Movio, DAB-IP is the quickest way to initiate mobile TV combined with free, over-the-air digital radio service. Currently, however, under U.K. regulations, operators are allowed to use only 20 percent of the DAB spectrum for nondigital-radio services. This amounts to a mere 300Kbps available for four to five TV channels!IP based streams!with up to 64Kbps per channel, in addition to a seven-day TV program guide. Current industry/regulator consultations may allow BT Movio to use up to 30 percent of DAB spectrum for mobile TV. "That'll be the best-case scenario," said Strowbridge.

DAB promoters stressed the importance of digital radio in the emerging mobile-TV service packages. "With so much hype on mobile TV, everyone underestimates radio," said RadioScape's Hall. In trials, people used digital radio 50 percent more than mobile TV, according to BT Movio.

In any commercial rollout, handset availability is bound to be a bottleneck. So far, 3 Italia has stocked stores with LG U900 mobile handsets incorporating Microtune's DVB-H TV tuner and DiBcom's DVB-H demodulator IC. Renesas Technology's multimedia chip is used to decode digital mobile-TV streams compressed in H.264 video and AAC+ audio.

Although Samsung P910 handsets were also supposed to be available for 3 Italia's subscribers by the end of May, they were nowhere to be seen in stores, according to sources in Italy. Samsung's DVB-H phones use Freescale's DVB-H tuner with DiBcom's DVB-H demodulator chip. While some in the electronics industry speculated that Samsung's delay may be due to glitches in TV reception capabilities, a 3 Italia spokesman assured EE Times that Samsung's handsets will be in stores shortly.

Debitel is using only one handset model from Samsung. The SGH-P900 clamshell multimedia phone uses Frontier Silicon's Apollo RF tuner and Kino 1 demodulator, according to Anthony Sethill, CEO at Frontier Silicon.

All the design sockets for the first-generation commercial mobile-TV handsets were won by smaller and specialized chip vendors armed with well-proven tuners and demodulators. "The biggest issue is how well the handset can receive signals," said Jim Fontaine, CEO and president at Microtune. Competitors "can do great demos," he said, "but DiBcom and Microtune are about the only two companies who have been doing this for a long time to prove that our products really work."

Most chip vendors today are quickly moving to next-generation tuner or demodulator ICs that can handle multiple mobile-TV standards. As already seen in Germany, T-DMB and DVB-H are destined to coexist. A year ago, "we were betting on DVB-H only," said Fontaine. "Now handset manufacturers are demanding multistandard solutions. No one's crystal ball is clear right now."

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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