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Incompatibility slows mobile TV uptake

Posted: 01 Nov 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile TV? Texas Instruments? TI? Modeo? DVB-HJunko Yoshida?

As mobile TV gears up in earnest, operators and handset vendors are finally coming to grips with a slew of problems that are impeding its uptake!including some of their own making. Among the challenges cited at last September's IBC, Europe's largest broadcast technology conference, are a persistent lack of interoperability, QoS issues and a non-existent certification process for any of the handful of competing mobile-TV standards.

Asked what the industry has learned from mobile-TV trials and commercial rollouts throughout Europe, Paul Werp, business director for mobile connectivity solutions at Texas Instruments Inc. (TI), said, "One word: interoperability."

Indeed, the industry's two biggest unfulfilled needs are "rock-solid interoperability" and "economy of scale," said Darragh Ballesty, product-marketing manager for mobile digital TV products at Silicon & Software Systems (S3), an Ireland-based middleware supplier.

Despite the flurry of activity in Europe, mobile-TV broadcast isn't happening in the United States!at least not commercially as yet. Eighteen months ago, many industry experts predicted that North America would be the first region to implement mobile-TV broadcast services based on the digital video broadcast-handheld (DVB-H) standard. The key to this prediction: Modeo, formerly Crown Castle, which owns 5MHz in the 1,670-1,675MHz spectrum range.

But Modeo has yet to sign up a single cellular operator to help start mobile-TV broadcasts to its subscribers.

Qualcomm, in contrast, has made a deal with Verizon Wireless!the largest cellular operator in the United States!as a Forward-Link-Only (FLO)-based mobile-TV distribution partner. Qualcomm's subsidiary, MediaFLO USA, is scheduled to run its service across 6MHz of bandwidth in the 700MHz range, on UHF channel 55. However, it's far from clear whether Qualcomm will be able to make significant revenue from mobile TV in 2007.

Michael Schueppert, CEO at Modeo, acknowledged that "the largest U.S. mobile operators are not yet as fully engaged with mobile TV as we would like." The reason, Schueppert said, is "primarily because operators are waiting for the technology to mature and for nationwide networks to be available."

Exactly how long all that will take is anybody's guess.

Even within a single standard like DVB-H, the fragmentation of specifications!including different conditional-access systems, different digital rights management (DRM) schemes and diverging feature implementations!has become a nightmare for network operators. Many of them can't find multiple sources for handsets that interoperate with their choice of headends. That, in turn, makes them reluctant to commit to commercial mobile-TV broadcast services. The fragmentation of profiles is also discouraging, since phone makers cannot afford to keep developing different handsets for every permutation of a given standard.

"There is no guaranteed interoperability at this stage," said Ulrich Reimers, chairman of DVB Project's Technical Module!especially when Internet Protocol datacast protocol stacks are added on top of the DVB-H standard. Too many operators, eager for the first mover's advantage, "have fiddled around with the implementations of IP datacasting, video codec and service protection systems," said Reimers, a professor at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany. He acknowledged, however, that "some moves in the industry are forcing operators to go back to full standards compliancy."

Traditionally, "self-certification" has been the modus operandi in TV broadcasting. But mobility compels TV handsets to comply with a telecommunication standard, making a much more rigorous validation and certification process almost mandatory. Most handset vendors today that can receive and decode just two mobile-TV video streams provided by an operator declare themselves "interoperable."

IP datacast protocols sit on top of DVB-H. They enable IP-based downstream channel.

In reality, how a mobile-TV device talks to a DVB-H network and to servers in the mobile-TV service infrastructure is far more complex!especially when IP-based downstream channels are added to the architecture. Variables include ways to offer essential interactivities such as service discovery and selection, service purchase and content protection." As a standard has a lot of options, you need to specify profiles. You must decide which functions are needed, and how you will use them," said Claus Sattler, executive director of the Broadcast Mobile Convergence (BMCO) forum.

Certification needed
Looking at the current DVB-H market, full of players with different approaches to implementing the standard, the DVB Project's Reimers wonders, "Should I have put in place a certification process before launching DVB-H?" His answer: "I don't know." Recalling the GSM launch in Europe, which delayed GSM phone rollouts for a year while the certification process was completed, Reimers said, "I am not sure we could have afforded the delay of another year" in DVB-H. The lost time might have given competing mobile-TV standards the chance to horn in.

One saving grace for the mobile-TV industry is that key players are coming together in an effort to determine implementation guidelines to ensure DVB-H interoperability.

The BMCO forum in Europe has completed its mobile-TV profiles for DVB-H. Similarly, in the United States, handset vendors and chip companies disclosed a North American set of profiles for DVB-H-based mobile TV, according to Yoram Solomon, director of strategic marketing and industry relations for TI's mobile connectivity solutions group. Solomon is also president of the Mobile DTV Alliance.

There is a persistent concern that sets of DVB-H profiles defined by BMCO and the MDTV Alliance are diverging across the Atlantic. Solomon said, however, that his group adopted as much of BMCO's version as it could.

Beyond specific DRMs, copy-protection schemes and content formats, the profiles agreed upon by the MDTV Alliance include transmission parameters, network and transport protocols, an interface to electronic service guides, interactive channels, recording functions and device management, among others.

Furthermore, the MDTV Alliance hopes to accomplish something BMCO hasn't yet pulled off!a certification process. Because the alliance is already fragmented, with member Modeo diverging in its choice of a media codec, DRM and service platforms, the U.S. group plans to develop a "network-specific" interoperability certification test platform by mid-December, Solomon promised.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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