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Broadcasters enter new phase in mobile digital TV push

The Mobile Content Venture group plans to scramble signals and require consumers to register

A mobile TV effort by local broadcasters in the U.S. is entering a new phase, with two large groups of stations showcasing new partnerships at the International Consumer Electronics Show, but the initiative still faces major hurdles.

TV stations covering much of the U.S. are gearing up to deliver programming to phones and other devices using a standard from the body that oversees TV technology in North America. Mobile Content Venture (MCV) and the Mobile500 Alliance, both of which include scores of stations across the country, have new deals with equipment vendors and, in one case, a mobile operator. But devices that can receive such programming are still scarce.

MCV is closest to a commercial launch with its Dyle Mobile TV service, as stations in 32 markets are already broadcasting. The group, which includes NBC, Fox, Univision and other large broadcasting groups, aims to offer at least two channels in each market. However, there are no firm dates on when the first client devices that can use the service -- a Samsung phone, a series of RCA portable TVs and a variety of Belkin adapters -- will be in consumers' hands. And because MCV plans to scramble its content, mobile TV receivers that consumers already have won't work with its service.

A trying time for TV

Traditional TV broadcasters face challenges on several fronts, including Web-based video services such as Hulu, video-on-demand services such as NetFlix and a growing array of viewing options from cable operators and telecommunications carriers. All those rivals are already taking strides in the mobile arena, while over-the-air TV on phones has made slow progress.

The ATSC Mobile DTV standard from the Advanced Television Standards Committee was completed in 2009, and the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) has been pushing for use of the specification to deliver live local broadcasts and other content since CES 2010.

Using ATSC, Mobile DTV, stations can broadcast shows over a portion of their existing channels. After a test in the Washington, D.C., area showed mobile TV consumers most liked to watch local programming such as news, the backers of ATSC Mobile DTV promoted it as a way for local stations to bring familiar programming at scheduled times to viewers who are away from their TVs. They contrasted this with Qualcomm's FLO TV service, which offered a lineup of national channels with its own program schedule. Qualcomm discontinued FLO TV last year and is in the process of selling its spectrum to AT&T.

The mobile DTV pitch at CES 2010 also included receivers, such as an LG DVD player, a Wi-Fi hotspot called the Tivit (later Tivizen), mobile TVs and USB dongles. They were designed to pick up unscrambled live broadcasts.

Vision evolving

But business realities intruded on that vision. Late last year, the MCV stations turned on conditional access, rendering the first generation of receivers useless for their service. The required registration for the service asks for the user's postal code, gender, birth date, email address and cable provider. (Consumers without a cable provider will be able to register.) That information ultimately will allow broadcasters to build business models around advertising, subscriptions, or cable, satellite, or mobile bills, though the service will be free at least through this year, MCV said.

Though local stations typically own the programming they produce, putting together a complete lineup of shows involves the rights of national networks and other content providers, complicating the process of sending video out over the mobile airwaves, said OMVC spokesman Dave Arland.

"A broadcaster can't just flip on mobile and expect not to get a call from the people who own the content," Arland said. Networks want conditional access in order to protect their content and measure use, he said.

The other major station group, Mobile500, plans to start a beta test of its service in Seattle next month. Mobile500 will launch without scrambling and plans to keep offering at least some unscrambled content for the foreseeable future, said Mobile 500 Executive Director John Lawson. Any conditional access system it might use in the future would be compatible with MCV's, Lawson said.

The station groups are also putting a greater emphasis on allowing added services on top of regular live broadcasts. Both MCV and Mobile500 want to be able to support subscription and pay-per-view programming, and Mobile500 is building in mechanisms for live recording and time-shifting of shows.

Both mobile TV ventures have promising news at CES.

MCV announced a deal in which Belkin will make accessories that allow smartphones and tablets to access Dyle Mobile TV. The accessories will serve as receivers for the TV frequencies, allowing users to get mobile TV by plugging in an adapter, downloading an app, and signing up. Belkin did not disclose a price range for its products and said only that the first accessories would go on sale early this year.

RCA is introducing a series of portable flat-panel TVs with 3.5-inch and 7-inch screens that will be able to receive Dyle Mobile TV as well as standard ATSC broadcasts. The TVs are set to ship later this year.

Also at CES, MCV will be carrying out demonstrations of Dyle Mobile TV with Samsung Electronics and carrier MetroPCS. Last week, the companies announced that Samsung would make a phone for MetroPCS with a built-in receiver for the service. MetroPCS said the Dyle-capable phone will be available in 14 cities this year. MetroPCS has about 9 million subscribers and is the country's fifth-biggest operator.

Mobile500 demonstrated TV tuner dongles for iPads, made with a chip from Siano, which will run a mobile app from Elgato and tie into audience measurement software from Expway on the back end. The company did not forecast a shipping date for such a device.

Holding onto viewers

It may be hard for TV stations to gain much traction in the mobile video world, just as they face challenges in holding on to viewers' TV screens at home, according to industry analysts.

Broadcasters' traditional distribution model of scheduled programming goes against the trend of consumer tastes, said Forrester Research mobile analyst Charles Golvin.

"Now, it's all about what I want, when I want it, on the device that happens to be convenient to me at that particular moment," Golvin said.

The mobile TV providers will need to get buy-in from a lot more parties before the services become viable long-term, analysts said. Getting the technology built in to phones will be critical, and because of mobile operators' role in approving handset designs, that will mean persuading both carriers and manufacturers that it's a worthwhile bet, Golvin said.

With all the other video options competing for consumers' attention, ATSC Mobile DTV providers will need a comprehensive service that consumers can turn to for their favorite shows, said analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis.

"I've never, ever seen a comprehensive plan like that," Greengart said. Instead, mobile TV offerings have been limited because of distribution rights issues causing blackouts for content such as live sports events, he said. The minimum of two stations in each market that MCV is promising for now will not be enough, he said.

"There have just been so many different stabs at mobile TV that it may be just one of those technologies that's forever just around the corner," Greengart said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com


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