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It's a survival race for mobile TV chip suppliers

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

Keywords:mobile TV? chip vendors? MediaFLO? DVB-H?

Suppliers of mobile TV technology waiting for the fledgling market to take wing have already entered a race for survival.

The number of credible mobile TV chip vendors is down to three: DiBcom, Siano Mobile Silicon Ltd and Newport Media. Bigger semiconductor companies such as Texas Instruments Inc. and NXP Semiconductors are putting their mobile TV projects on the back burner.

To stay in this embryonic market, "you must believe in mobile TV," said Mohy Abdelgany, president and CEO of Newport Media. It requires "a leap of faith" and money, he said. While a few chip vendors have fallen off the pace, Abdelgany said, "With the $85 million we've got, we can outspend larger companies."

But his company may be an anomaly. Various mobile TV trials and commercial rollouts have reminded the industry of the critical importance of spectrum availability and up-front network build-out planning. But they have offered scant clues about effective business models or specific mobile TV standards.

Market in plateau
Italy's much-celebrated mobile TV broadcast services are now considered a blip that came and went with little impact, according to many industry insiders who attended September's International Broadcasting Conference (IBC). Although Italian consumers initially embraced DVB-H-based mobile TV handsets, the devices' popularity has reportedly reached a plateau. To foster a new round of market growth, operators are launching an effort to bundle free- and pay-TV channels.

Qualcomm's aggressive investment in MediaFLO-based networks has Verizon Wireless and AT&T solidify their mobile TV strategies. But this has effectively smothered the competing DVB-H-based system and stifled interest in mobile TV in the United States.

Modeo, which closed shop earlier this year, was the first casualty. Many suspect that Hiwire is next. Hiwire, a subsidiary of Aloha Partners and the largest owner of 700MHz spectrum in the United States, is promoting DVB-H. But most in the mobile TV industry now see the company as "a spectrum speculator" rather than a serious operator.

Azzedine Boubguira, VP of marketing and business development at DiBcom, said, "It's not MediaFLO that won. It's DVB-H that failed" in the United States.

Verizon started marketing MediaFLO-based mobile TV handsets earlier this year, and the service is available in 37 markets. But the carrier has never provided hard data about how many people are signing up.

Abdelgany is hopeful, though. "We may see new market dynamics once AT&T starts mobile TV services," he said. His company plans to sample a single-die tuner/demodulator SoC compliant with the MediaFLO spec early next year. It is pinning its hopes on leading handset vendors such as Nokia, which does not use Qualcomm chipsets, starting to supply MediaFLO-compliant cellphones to AT&T.

All the noise surrounding mobile TV standards has only tended to make the market more chaotic.

Meanwhile, British Telecom shut down mid-year its mobile broadcast branch, BT Movio. The DAB-IP-based delivery platform developed by BT Movio was the only mobile broadcast TV service in the United Kingdom. While the operator declared that the service would carry on until the beginning of next year, BT canceled the contract with GCap Media, which provided access to the DAB spectrum.

Some blamed its failure on the HTC-manufactured "Lobster phone"the only phone made available for the servicefor being unattractive and offering poor TV quality. However, others believe BT Movio got caught between a lack of spectrum availability in the United Kingdom (which pushed it to adopt DAB instead of DVB-H) and the European Commission's meddling. The EC had leaned hard on member states to adopt the DVB-H standard.

Resetting expectations
Only a year ago, in June 2006, In-Stat predicted, "By the end of 2010, mobile TV broadcast subscribers worldwide will reach 102 million, a giant leap from 3.4 million in 2006." The Gartner Group went even further. Earlier this year, the market research firm predicted mobile TV "will become a mainstream service in most developed markets by 2010, with close to half a billion subscribers worldwide." Gartner included TV service over cellular, which it forecast would grow from 38 million users in 2007 to 356 million in 2010. Meanwhile, the firm said that TV broadcasting would reach 133 million mobile subscribers by 2010, due to the growing availability of broadcast-enabled phones. Japan, said Gartner, would lead the way, followed by Western Europe.

Today, few people are talking about 100 million subscribers for 2010. Siano put the total of all mobile TV broadcast subscribers in 2006 at only a few million. At best, Siano said, it might hit 20 million in 2007. "Everyone is resetting their mobile TV expectations," said Rick Doherty, president of Envisioneering Group.

All the noise surrounding mobile TV standards has only tended to make the market more chaotic. Philip Laven, former director of the technical department of the European Broadcasting Union, said in his lecture at IBC, "Advocates of the systems would like to persuade you that their system is the best. Don't believe people who are promoting it. None of them give a clear recommendation in favor of single system, because comparisons are difficult and quite complicated even for technical people."

For example, spectral efficiency alone couldn't be a deciding factor, because operators tend to select lower data rates for better coverage. As for coverage reliability, while digital terrestrial TV networks deliver 18-24Mbps to rooftop antennas, mobile TV networks face more difficulties. "A built-in antenna for handheld devices is typically small and inefficient," Laven said. "And users want their handheld devices to work not only outdoors at ground level, but also indoors."

In the final analysis, the issue is network cost. Different network topology is needed to deliver reliable mobile TV services. This means building denser networks of lower-power transmitters.

Many chip vendors are keenly aware of the network build-out obstacles. But the key issue, said Ronen Jashek, director of technical marketing and co-founder of Siano, is spectrum. Once spectrum was made available and allocated, the mobile TV market quickly picked up, "as Korea, Italy and Japan have shown," Jashek said.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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