Mobile Digital TV Is Coming, But There Will Be Many Flavors

A new In-Stat report points to DVB-H and MediaFLO as colliding technologies that seek to prevail in major markets.
Despite technological advances, digital mobile TV broadcasting is likely to remain fragmented, at least into the foreseeable future, according to a report issued this week.

Entitled "Worldwide Mobile TV Broadcasting," the survey of global standards, reveals that digital mobile TV broadcasting is coming in a big way though the standards have been fragmented.

"As with digital terrestrial broadcasting, mobile TV broadcasting has different standards that are being used around the world," In-Stat analyst and report author Michelle Abraham said in an interview this week. "Services are new and companies are making choices with respect to their particular situations since there is not a clear best way that is suitable for everyone."

She argues that analog mobile TV broadcast viewers will continue to outnumber users of digital mobile TV broadcast viewers in 2009, although Abraham noted that U.S. broadcasters want to be on-air with mobile TV offerings near to the shutoff date of analog TV in February 2009.

Even with relatively slow liftoff periods for the standards, In-Stat is looking for subscription revenue to reach $12 billion in 2012.

Standards are being developed in different countries in different regions of the world, creating a complex patchwork of many incompatible standards and specifications.

Two major standards -- DVB-H and MediaFLO -- are already colliding as they seek to prevail in major markets. At the other end of the food chain is China, which is racing to deploy a wireless digital TV network in time for use in the Olympics. "By building the CMMB (China Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting) network in time for the Beijing Olympics, the SARFT (China State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) hopes it will become the national mobile TV standard," Abraham said.

MediaFLO, developed by Qualcomm, is already in use in the U.S. by Verizon Wireless and AT&T is slated to debut the system in a few days.

"Qualcomm claims that FLO offers twice the performance of DVB-H, since it was designed to share the terrestrial spectrum," Abraham said. "That means it could cover twice the territory as DVB-H or cover the same territory with twice the number of services." Qualcomm also claims that MediaFLO has faster channel switching times and requires less power for video viewing.

Qualcomm has tested MediaFLO in Europe, but it hasn't had much commercial success for the standard against DVB-H, which is being supported by European Union officials. DVB-H advocates note a big advantage of the standard: it is backward compatible with key existing frequencies in Europe eliminating the need for acquisition of new spectrum. Behind the standards scenes, the two approaches represent another platform where the two battle hardened companies of Qualcomm and DVB-H champion Nokia can slug it out over an emerging technology. The two firms have been in bitter and long term litigation over intellectual property issues.

Noting that DVB-H was developed by Europe's Digital Video Broadcast Project, Abraham said the organization has promoted the development of many of the digital TV standards around the world; she added that several commercial DVB-H systems are in Europe. "European commissioner Viviane Reding has called for DVB-H to be made the European standard for mobile TV," Abraham said.

To date, however, there have been no commercially available DVB-H media players, although several handsets have been produced. Motorola recently demonstrated its DH01 portable media player with DVB-H receiver.

Scores if not hundreds of manufacturers are moving to grab a piece of the mobile digital broadcast TV market. Japan's KDDI, Softbank and NTT DoCoMo already offer mobile phones with TV tuners, but users find it difficult to switch from TV viewing to voice and data services.

In her In-Stat report Abraham also cited Alcatel's DVB-SH effort that seeks to address a major piece of the mass mobile TV market. Alcatel, she observed, has proposed to use the combo S-band for terrestrial and satellite DVB-H signals.

What makes the Alcatel approach intriguing is the fact that the S-band is adjacent to 3G/UMTS spectrum enabling "the reuse of 3G radio sites and antennas for S-band repeaters," Abraham said, adding that she envisions the future to continue to be marked by fragmented standards.