Viable Mobile Video Service Is In Reach, but Key Steps Remain

Thierry Fautier, director, telco solutions, Harmonic.

Thierry Fautier, director, telco solutions, Harmonic.

February 17, 2009 – If the key to making mobile video a truly viable mass market lies in industry support for a full suite of unicast, broadcast, multicast and sideloaded video services, the stars are nearly aligned to do just that.

So says Harmonic Inc., which used the February Mobile World Congress expo in Barcelona to begin trying to persuade key players in the mobile video supply chain that, taken alone, either live, downloaded, unicast or on-demand video service won't succeed in winning over mass markets. However, when they are combined, "Altogether, the service will be rich enough for consumers to subscribe," says Thierry Fautier. director of telco solutions for Harmonic.

Harmonic is arguing that the tools are close to being completely available for this comprehensive approach, thanks to the advent of multi-megabit-per-second HSPA 3.5G delivery networks, fast emerging in-home Wi-Fi and femtocell systems, greater handset processing and memory, higher resolution QVGA and WQVGA screens and coming multicast-capable 4G and local mobile broadcast technologies.

"It's a combination of device capability, network, content plan and business models," Fautier says. "This mobile space is going to move in a different way from 2.5G phones and MediaFLO – better phones, better networks, better business models. All that leads us to believe that now the stars are aligned."

For its own part, Harmonic is positioning itself to sell both real-time and file-based program encoding and delivery systems to operators, programmers and aggregators of mobile video. Armed with a plethora of industry research, a lengthy white paper and new demonstrations of mobile video services including network personal video recorder (nPVR)-based, time-shifted 'Catchup TV' and in-home Wi-Fi and femtocell systems, the company hopes to inspire others in the industry to pursue a multi-faceted service approache better guaranteed to win over consumers.

"We have been working in the background for sometime, and we think it is time to get out and give our perspective," Fautier says. Harmonic's argument starts with an analysis of the shortcomings, in terms of consumer response to date, of mobile video approaches so far tried in marketplaces around the world.

Video streamed or broadcast over 2.5G and 3G networks that deliver under 250 kilobit-per-second speeds, for example, pose both video quality and scalability challenges.

Additionally, to accommodate incomplete 3G infrastructure deployment in many regions, 3G operators are deploying a "Bit-Rate Switching" technique (3GPP standard v6) to automatically switch streams to a lower or higher bit-rate depending on the quality of the transmission and the contention ratio in the network – an approach certain to produce inconsistent user experiences. Further, 3G operators have only begun to deliver the kind of VGA and QVGA handset screens needed to satisfy consumer expectations.

For live broadcast services such as DVB-H and FLO, additional investment in overlay networks is required and, to date, have not enjoyed sufficient guarantees of return on such investments.

Due to those and other shortcomings, adoption of mobile video has been limited, and churn has been high. Harmonic cites In-Stat research that found only six million 3G TV subscribers, equivalent to 2 percent of 3G subscribers, although, Harmonics says, this is spread across 2.5G and 3G. It also cites an M:Metrics survey of European users that shows a range of reasons for very high churn. Forty-five percent of European Mobile Video and TV users cited pricing issues as a factor in deciding to switch off the service, and nearly a quarter (24 percent) of users who tried mobile video and TV stopped using the services due to concerns about service quality and reliability. The report also found that users avoid the extra cost of a mobile video package by accessing digested and user-generated video content on sites such as You Tube.

According to Harmonic, market research indicates that five key elements contribute to success for live and on-demand "mobile TV" (a subset of the broader "mobile video" category, which includes unicast, multicast, downloaded and side-loaded, as well as TV):
* Pricing: A $10 fee per month is widely recognized as a good average number. This needs to be a fixed fee so that users do not have to meter their consumption.
* Network: The network must be able to provide reliable coverage (including indoors) and high quality video (QVGA 15fps as a minimum).
* Experience: User experience must be seamless for both 3G broadcast and Internet delivery.
* Device: Users must have access to appropriate cell phones offering a comfortable viewing experience. Successful resolutions available today are QVGA (DVB-H), WQVGA (iPhone, ATSC M/H and touch screen smart phone) and VGA (Japan)
* Content: Diverse and exclusive content must be offered for live and VOD video.
Given proper execution on all those fronts, operators must build networks that scale to meet rising mobile video demand. Faurtier emphasizes that 4G will go a long way toward solving video streaming scalability issues encountered in 3G because it will introduce multicast IP protocol to the cellular realm for the first time.

"I believe that unicast video in 3G cannot scale," Fautier says. "You hit a wall after 10 sessions, exhaust the base station and can't serve any more video. If you want to scale in bit rate, you need a 4G multicast delivery network." The current predominance of channelized technologies in cellular infrastructure also presents a scalability issue. "Backhaul has to move to IP," he says.

As to how soon consumers may see the kind of quality that research indicates they desire, suppliers like Ericsson are already delivering 3.5G HSPA infrastructure in volume, and a fourth generation of mobile networks appear poised debut within the next two years. "We expect to see much more 3.5G pretty soon, and 2010 may bring 4G," he says. "The killer app for 4G is video. We believe that 300 or 350 kilobits per second is required. Below that, I don't think there will be [consumer] interest."

He also believes that the steady proliferation of Wi-Fi routers will solve another critical necessity: providing sufficient throughput for bandwidth-sensitive video in consumers' homes while offloading much of that traffic from last-mile infrastructure. Indeed, according to reports by AdMob, as recently as November 2008, 43 percent of iPhone Internet access is made from a Wi-Fi connection, demonstrating that iPhone users, with whom video penetration is relatively high, prefer Wi-Fi to 3G for Internet use. "I think delivery of on demand content through 3G and Wi-Fi is becoming a necessity."

The move to IP also is rapidly laying the groundwork for local TV broadcasters to contribute compelling services and content to the comprehensive solution that Harmonic believes operators soon will be able to implement. In December, the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) responsible for setting technical standards for North American TV broadcast stations elevated its specification for Mobile Digital Television to Candidate Standard status.

That standard provides capabilities necessary for broadcasters to provide new services to mobile and handheld devices using their digital television transmissions. ATSC Mobile DTV includes a transmission system based on vestigial sideband (VSB) modulation coupled with a flexible and extensible IP based transport, efficient MPEG AVC (H.264) video and HE AAC v2 audio (ISO/IEC 14496-3) coding.

"The ATSC technology has a lot of momentum," Fautier says. "We will demonstrate interesting things on that at [the broadcast industry's annual] NAB [expo in April]."

In the big picture, Harmonic insists that winning over various demographics demands that operators offer a diverse suite of video applications. Along with broadcast, unicast and multicast applications, this includes offering people the opportunity to download their favorite shows on demand, either by sideloading the shows from their PC or from emerging IPTV and cable set-top boxes.

Further, Fautier says, "Catchup TV is very popular in Europe. It's just beginning in the U.S. but we're confident it will prove popular here too." Among demonstrations Harmonic prepared for Mobile World Congress, "We'll show catchup TV on an iPhone. It's exactly the same programming you'd watch today on DVB-H, this time through 3G or Wi-Fi, as operators provide access to all content on available on servers."

As consumers and businesses push total mobile device counts toward the three billion mark globally, Fautier believes operators cannot afford to lose the opportunity to bring rich video choice and quality to that market.

"The ratio of IPTV to mobile subsribers is one to 50," he says. "If you look at France Telecom or AT&T, they have huge content divisions. When they go back to their content partners, they can negotiate an extension to mobile. Two years ago they couldn't get an appointment. So things are changing."