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Mobile TV outlook remains dim

Posted: 01 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile TV? digital TV? UMTS? DTV? 3G?

Call it pessimism or just a healthy respect for reality. Either way, the immediate outlook remains dim for solving the tangled web of problems tripping up broadcast mobile TV.

Debates about mobile TV at last December's Telecom World 2006 in Hong Kong showed one thing clear!that the state of broadcast mobile TV remains largely unchanged.

And that state can be said to be chaotic. Frequency conflicts, competing standards, technical glitches, security issues, licensing uncertainty and experimental business models mean the "convergence" the industry talks about is not the type that will make it money anytime soon.

More diplomatically, the UMTS Forum recently acknowledged that there is "considerable confusion" in the market. In a white paper released in November, the forum clearly described all the problems, but was stumped on concrete ways to bring about rapid "harmonization" in global frequency allocation, as well as standards to spur the economies of scale that would make broadcast mobile TV workable!that is to say, cheap and profitable!anytime in the near future.

Some chip vendors argue that the cost picture is changing quickly. "Surprisingly, cost is already in favor of the multistandard option," said Ralph Weir, VP of marketing at Mirics Semiconductor Inc. "Single-standard receivers will be around for a while, until the industry masters the challenges of building multistandard. Then, the industry will switch very rapidly." The U.K.-based fabless IC designer recently released a polyband tuner covering all the main DTV standards, plus digital and analog radio, for what it claims is less than the cost of a single-band DVB-H tuner.

Multistandard baseband
Frontier Silicon believes it will pay a negligible area penalty for its DSP-based multistandard baseband, which covers terrestrial Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (T-DMB) and DVB-H. "We argue that the savings in having one hardware and software mobile DTV platform for multiple standards is actually a significant cost saving in terms of R&D costs amortized over the life of the phone," said Matt Hatch, VP at Frontier.

This multipronged approach is becoming more popular among chip vendors, since no one broadcast contender is poised for global domination. In Europe, DVB-H holds sway. America is flirting with Qualcomm Inc.'s MediaFlo, while South Korea favors terrestrial or satellite DMB and Japan is focusing on its own ISDB-T. Not surprisingly, China is also angling to launch a homegrown standard in the next few years.

The spec, called China Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting, is based on homegrown technology known as STiMi, short for satellite and terrestrial interactive multiservice infrastructure. The technology bears some resemblance to Europe's DVB-SH, and at least one company pushing DVB-SH, Alcatel/Lucent, said it would be able to help the Chinese roll out such a system.

In South Korea, the proprietary satellite DMB system is showing some signs of sustainability. South Korea leads in the rollout of mobile-TV services, with 2.5 million users. Early on, after investments were made in S-DMB, the Korean government also began promoting free-to-air T-DMB. That made life tougher for TU Media Corp., the company trying to charge for its S-DMB services.

Despite this, TU Media has grown to roughly 1 million users since its start in May 2005. The company eyes 2.2 million users by the end of 2007, at which point it expects to break even, said CEO Young-kil Suh.

Mobile-TV Shangri-la
Korea, however, is like a mobile-TV Shangri-la; replicating its success may be tough in the near term. Research firm Parks Associates recently estimated that the United States is likely to have about 15 million users of mobile TV by 2010, generating $1.6 billion in revenue. That's about 7 percent penetration. In Europe, broadcast mobile TV will hit 10 percent penetration in 2010, and only 5 percent will be frequent users, according to Strategy Analytics. "We have to face this reality. Mobile TV will not happen soon, especially because of regulatory issues," said Eric Grignon, business development manager and strategist for Orange.

Clearing out space in the UHF band will remain a problem in Europe, especially in the U.K., where Qualcomm is trying to leverage that disadvantage into acceptance of MediaFlo. "For many places in Europe, the spectrum won't be available until 2010 or 2011," said Bosco Fernandes, chair of UMTS Forum's mobile TV group.

Decisions on licensing will be pivotal in many markets, from China to the Czech Republic. Will licenses be technology-specific? Will regulators favor limited players, or let the market decide?

According to the UMTS Forum, early trial results show that many users!as many as 50 percent to 75 percent of them!watch mobile TV indoors. That will translate into more pressure on chipmakers to improve TV reception. At the device level, a 3dB increase in sensitivity may translate into a halving of rollout costs for the broadcast network, according to the UMTS Forum.

Indoor viewing
A propensity for indoor viewing will also factor into frequency allocation and its link to network cost and handset form factors. Low VHF frequencies, for instance, will mean external antennas to pick up the longer wavelengths. The space occupied by analog-TV UHF channels (470-862MHz) is nice because of its extended propagation, which means fewer transmitting towers and, usually, internal antennas.

After being burned on pricey 3G licenses, it's easy to see why operators are spooked, and why they are still very interested in cellular TV. It's good for now, and will work as part of a future package in which broadcast channels are introduced as issues are slowly resolved.

Halfway around the world, other operators are still taking a wait-and-see approach. "We haven't recovered the 3G investment yet, so we are cautious about building another network," said Tony Seeto, director of business development at Hong Kong CSL Ltd. "We will launch our mobile TV based on the 3G network." Network capacity is a disadvantage, he said, "but in these early days of 3G, we are not running out of capacity at the moment."

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times




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