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China mobile TV spec gains strong backers

Posted: 16 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:China mobile TV? China 3G technology? China Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting technology?

Key support from two pioneering chip design houses may help a fledgling mobile TV spec pull ahead of the field of competitors vying to become China's national standard. The winner will be introduced to the world during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Siano Mobile Silicon and DiBcom say they will support the satellite-based China Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting (CMMB) technology over a rival scheme originally crafted for digital free-to-air broadcasts to fixed televisions. They also favor CMMB over a lesser-known format devised for mobile phones.

Based on their assessment of the usually opaque decision-making process that surrounds China's standards, as well as their belief in the better suitability of CMMB for mobile handsets, the two design houses are placing early bets. It's an importantand potentially riskystep in a market with no fewer than four domestic and three international standards screaming for attention.

"We used to joke that there are as many standards in China as there are universities, but it looks like CMMB is pulling ahead," said Azzedine Boubguira, VP of business development for DiBcom, which designs demodulators.

DiBcom, Siano and Beijing-based Innofidei Inc. will all have CMMB silicon ready by the end of this year or early next. Innofidei already has a chip out, having released a first-generation demodulator in March, and hopes to have a smaller, lower-power version by October. Around that time, two satellites will be launched in preparation for network trials in the spring and modest commercial services targeted at the Olympics.

Rush job
At least, that's the plan. "It will surely be a rush job. I don't see it happening by then," said Duncan Clark, managing director of telecom consultancy BDA China. Others are also doubtful, including the chipmakers themselves.

It has become increasingly clear that CMMB's benefactor, the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), is willing to use its power over frequency allocation and content licensing to see that CMMB wins out over competing standards, including established international formats such as Europe's DVB-H and South Korea's T-DMB. But the CMMB effort's estimated $3 billion price tag may not fly with government bean counters. And China's track record for implementing homegrown technologies is spotty. Its highest-profile case thus far is a 3G technology, TD-SCDMA, whose ascendancy has easily set back the rollout of 3G services for at least a year as engineers rush to make it reliable.

Sarft introduced CMMB last October. The spec is based on a homegrown transport technology known as STiMi (short for "satellite and terrestrial interactive multiservice infrastructure"). The service operates in the 2.6GHz frequency, using 25MHz of bandwidth to offer 25 video and 30 radio channels, plus some data channels. STiMi supports the S- and UHF/VHF bands and will use both satellites and terrestrial relays to implement coverage. The technology bears some resemblance to Europe's DVB-SH (for satellite service to handheld devices).

Two prominent chip companies throw support behind CMMB.

Competitive and regulatory challenges could impede CMMB's progress. A chipmaker associated with the development of China's free-to-air transmission standard, DMB-T, is trying to field a low-power chipset for portable media players (PMPs), automotive displays and notebook PCs (via USB dongles). The company, Legend Silicon Corp., believes those uses will trump handsets as the early market for mobile TV in China.

"There's enough money to be made in USB and PMPs, plus we have the larger market of STBs and TVs," said Hong Dong, a co-founder of Legend.

Initial targets
Interestingly, the USB and PMP market is also the initial target of CMMB backer Innofidei. By sidestepping the handset, at least for now, these companies are waiting to see the outcome of a potential showdown among CMMB, DMB-T and another, little-known standard that has been floated by a rival bureaucracy, the Ministry of Information Industry (MII).

The spec, T-MMB (Terrestrial-Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting), is a T-DMB derivative developed by Beijing's Nufront Software in conjunction with two local universities. The MII-backed format supports frequencies from 30MHz to 3GHz. Like T-DMB, which is based on the Digital Audio Broadcasting spec, it uses a 1.536MHz bandwidth and can support four to seven video channels and two audio channels.

At the moment, it's uncertain how committed MII is to backing T-MMB and instigating a turf battle. Insiders said T-MMB seems to have the least support.

The minutiae of bureaucratic maneuvers may have a profound impact on the way the mobile TV industry develops in China. If CMMB is to be successful, it needs the backing of telecom regular MII, which approves handsets for distribution to operators. On the other hand, if MII wants to push T-MMB, it would have to get Sarft to approve frequencies and content licenses.

"They need each other to be successful, but they need telecom convergence to see this happen. So they are kind of stuck," said Clark.

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times

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