Broadcasters Face Moment of Truth In Assessing Multi-Screen Potential

Lisa Hobbs, head of broadcast compression solutions, Ericsson

Lisa Hobbs, head of broadcast compression solutions, Ericsson

May 6, 2010 – A major market trial that could help shape a path for broadcast stations seeking not be left behind in the multi-screen entertainment era is just getting underway in Washington, DC.

The Mobile Digital TV Consumer Showcase brings together nine broadcast stations running more than 20 programs and a bevy of technology companies under the auspices of the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) for an experiment that will run through the summer to assess consumer responses and business models that include free-to-air as well as premium content. Despite a slower-than-expected start, Mobile DTV, leveraging the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s Mobile Handheld standard (ATSC-MH), now has support from a wide range of devices entering the market this year to enable on-the-go access to broadcast content and interactive applications.

“With the introduction of Mobile DTV technology, broadcasters can reach viewers not just at home but anywhere and anytime without needing new spectrum and without needing to build new towers,” says Brandon Burges, CEO of ION Media Networks and chairman of OMVC. Anticipating a positive outcome to the trial, Burges adds that the showcase is “a truly exciting demonstration of the types of services that broadcasters will deploy across the country in the next few years.”

The Mobile DTV broadcast trial service will support video viewing at 416 x 240 pixels resolution at 30 frames per second and 48 kbps stereo audio, an electronic service guide with light interactivity for voting, rating and messaging, as well as conditional access controls and audience measurement collection. Audience metrics will be collected and analyzed using a return channel in connected devices (such as Mobile DTV-equipped cell phones and netbooks), and market research will also include online feedback, interviews and focus groups.

One of the interesting wrinkles to the trial is the participation of a mobile service provider, Sprint Nextel, which is making a non-commercial prototype version of Samsung’s Moment smartphone with Mobile DTV capability available to a limited number of subscribers. Also in play is LG Mobile Phones’ Maize prototype, a GSM handset that’s in use elsewhere by individual broadcasters that have launched Mobile DTV trials.

LG and Samsung, which also supply receiving/decoding/tuning chipsets used by a variety of manufacturers who plan to offer Mobile DTV products later this year, are sponsoring the Washington trial. Dell will be participating as well by making available its new Inspiron Mini 10 netbook, which combines ATSC Mobile DTV, Wi-Fi and broadband capabilities to support a wide array of mobile video applications. Another notable device in play for the trial is the Tivizen from Korean manufacturer Valups, which is a credit-card sized Mobile DTV receiver that beams TV signals to Wi-Fi enabled devices like the iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry and laptops.

There’s also an iPhone-specific device from Cydle which offers Mobile DTV reception and battery backup for the iPhone in a clip-on case. And on the automotive front, SKE will show off a Mobile DTV receiver for the car that can transform an in-car video screen into a Mobile DRV receiver and iMovee will show a GPS receiver that doubles as a Mobile DTV display.

Along with free content delivered by stations WRC (NBC), WTTG (Fox), WFDC (Univision), WUSA (Gannett CBS affiliate), WHUT (PBS) and WNUV (Sinclair Broadcast Group), various specialized outlets will be sending out signals with premium programming from Fox Cable, MSNBC, CNBC and other sources, OMVC says. Mobile television programming will be fed to the stations and controlled at a new Mobile DTV Network Operations Center (NOC) situated at the studios of WUSA-TV.

With much drum beating a year ago at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, OMVC and its allies projected Mobile DTV launches by over 60 stations nationwide in 2009. Now, nearly halfway through 2010, just 45 of the 900 OMVC member stations are offering the service, mostly on a trial basis, leaving an aura of unmet expectations hanging over the new strategy. But, as the trial demonstrates and as was demonstrated at this year’s NAB convention, an impressive array of devices, from specially adapted mobile phones to netbooks, tablets, automotive receivers and USB and other adapters, combined with electronic programming guides and new service models, made clear the industry has the technology support it needs to get the new service off the ground.

Beyond all this, one major component of what the industry needs – as much spectrum as possible for supporting Mobile DTV without squeezing other uses of scarce broadcast TV spectrum – has been addressed by gains in compression technology that reduce the bandwidth consumed by broadcast digital TV. For example, Ericsson has introduced a new encoder that cuts bandwidth requirements for MPEG-2 standard definition channels by 15 percent and HD channels by 30 percent, according to Lisa Hobbs, head of broadcast compression solutions at Ericsson.

This translates into support for 15 SD or three HD channels or some mix of the two in a single 6 MHz spectrum allocation, Hobbs says. “We have made these improvements in encoding efficiency without sacrificing quality,” she stresses. “Many broadcasters had reached their limits trying to squeeze new services into their spectrum space, so they had to be able to free up bandwidth to take advantage of mobile DTV and to support additional SD channels.”

Under the ATSC digital broadcast standard the 6 MHz of channel spectrum allocated to each broadcaster supports a digital throughput of 19.39 megabits per second. Based on how broadcasters on average are utilizing their spectrum in today’s market, they could free up about four to five mbps by putting the new Ericsson encoding platform to use, says Carl Ferguson, vice president for compression product management at Ericsson.

These gains stem from the manufacturer’s ability to apply advances in chip processing power to utilize more of the capabilities embodied in the MPEG-2 standard than was possible when broadcasters first began broadcasting digitally, Ferguson notes. “The timing is right for bringing in these new encoders, because broadcasters replace their encoders every five to seven years, and a lot of broadcasters have been doing digital broadcasts for ten years,” Ferguson says. “They can install these units, freeing up bandwidth to enable MH, and keep their previous systems as backups.”

While the data rate required for delivering content over MH is in the 400-600 kilobit-per-second range, the bit rates required for overhead such as forward error correction are much greater, Hobbs notes. “For the first MH stream you need about 2 mbps, counting FEC,” she says, adding that, if a broadcaster wants to add more MH streams the bandwidth per stream drops significantly.

In the MH standard there are eight 917 kbps groups of data streams, each of which can be devoted to different applications, including a TV channel, data and interactive polling, the Electronic Services Guide (a well-defined platform within the standard), content protection, signaling, etc., resulting in a maximum capacity consumption of 7.336 mbps. However, on average, the OMVC says a broadcaster operating two to four mobile DTV services would consume a total of four to six mbps of the available bandwidth.

Another important technical capability that has major implications for the monetization of Mobile DTV is the emergence of security capabilities that enable distribution of premium content into small form factors. Nagravision, a partner in the Mobile DTV trial, is a leading facilitator in this arena, with its software-based security system now certified to run on over 300 types of mobile and other small devices worldwide, according to Robin Wilson, vice president of business development at Nagravision.

The MH-compliant version of its security system is running on the Valups adapter, Wilson says. This digital rights management security layer is designed to use the processing power of the chipset native to the device without requiring an additional hardware piece. But for the level of security required for high-value content utilizing public-key-based encryption there’s a need for dedicated processors, which may entail tweaking of the SD (Secure Digital) memory card standard for compatibility with MH memory functions.

Wilson says Nagravision is now engaged in discussions with the Consumer Electronics Association and other vendors that could lead to use of SD memory cards, which measure just 32 x 24 millimeters and can be embedded in devices or inserted in standardized slots. Nagravision has an SD card operating at data rates sufficient to support the security requirements of Mobile DTV video.

SD uses Cryptomeria cipher encryption, which is a highly protected specification accessible only to licensees. “It’s all secret sauce, so the device manufacturer has to do very little to implement the technology,” Wilson says.

There are a lot of moving parts to implementing Mobile DTV, notwithstanding its compatibility with existing ATSC broadcast distribution systems, which means broadcasters have to spend a lot of money to enable the service as well as rely on emergence of a retail distribution ecosystem for getting compliant devices into the hands of subscribers. The DC trial will go a long way toward determining whether consumer interest is potentially strong enough to break the chicken-and-egg barriers to moving Mobile DTV into the mainstream.