In June, the vast majority of analog television broadcasting in the United States ended, leaving digital the only game in town. But the digital television standard adopted in 1996, called ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee), left out one potential group of consumers: those who want to watch TV on the go—sitting on a train, perhaps, in a stadium or café, or in the back seat of a car on a long trip.
When broadcasters, manufacturers, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) settled on the technical standard for U.S. digital TV, they believed they needed the entire bandwidth available—6 megahertz per channel—to transmit razor-sharp high-definition pictures to people’s living rooms. They didn’t think they could shoehorn in other features—such as fixing the problem that causes digital pictures to break up once the receiver starts moving at more than a few kilometers per hour.
Most other countries made the same trade-off [see sidebar ”Tuning In to Mobile TV Around the World”]. But Japan and China came late to digital television, by which time advances in chip technology had already made it economically feasible to build receivers that could decode complex signals. So they were able to incorporate mobile reception into their standards from the beginning.
Meanwhile, cellphone operators and Internet television services stepped into the void, offering, in most cases for a fee, a limited number of channels streamed to mobile phones. And the broadcasters were shut out of the mobile television business—until now.
Following a technology development and standardization effort of unprecedented speed, the ATSC standard is expanding to include broadcast television for mobile handheld receivers, or ATSC Mobile DTV. Broadcasters have begun test transmissions; consumer trials are likely to start in early 2010 in Washington, D.C., with mass-market products available later next year.
Broadcasters will be able to provide this ATSC Mobile DTV programming free, supported only by advertising, because the equipment they need is relatively inexpensive and it uses spectrum they already own. Cellphone operators offering similar television service—for example, Qualcomm’s MediaFLO—must buy spectrum from the FCC and build a network of new transmitters developed specifically to deliver multiple channels of small-screen programming to telephone handsets. In part because of the huge costs of doing so, subscription revenues are essential to operating this enterprise.
The process started about three years ago. In April 2006, Samsung Electronics of South Korea and its partner, transmitter manufacturer Rohde & Schwarz Engineering and Sales, in Germany, demonstrated at the trade show of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) something called Advanced Vestigial Sideband (A-VSB), a way to adapt the ATSC standard for mobile devices. At an NAB show a year later, LG Electronics, in South Korea, and Harris Corp., in Melbourne, Fla., revealed an alternative mobile technology they named MPH, for ”mobile, portable, handheld.” Thomson and Micronas, French and German companies, respectively, announced that each was also developing similar technology; the two later merged their efforts and jointly developed a prototype. Along the way, at least 10 other companies, including MobiTV, Nokia, Dolby, DTS, and others announced they were developing various pieces of mobile television technology, although they were not designing complete transmission systems.
It looked like yet another standards battle was about to break out in the world of consumer electronics. These confrontations seem to erupt over and over, in which two different companies or industry consortia develop a great new technology but take different and incompatible approaches. Eventually, one technology prevails, and one group of consumers is left with an orphaned system. This happened in videocassette recording; it happened in high-definition blue-laser videodisc; and it happened in audio, when the battle between the Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio sunk both formats.
But it didn’t happen in mobile television. In April of 2007, broadcasters representing more than 280 TV stations reaching 95 million homes joined together in the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) with the expressed intent of driving the manufacturers toward a single standard, then taking that standard and running with it. The group held a bake-off. That is, they tested the prototypes, cut the field to Samsung and LG, and then pushed those historic rivals to come together.
In May 2008, the two companies did. Samsung and LG announced their intention to merge their proposals and to offer the result to the ATSC as a possible mobile-TV standard. In December 2008 the ATSC published ATSC Mobile DTV as a candidate standard. Such publication is an open invitation for interested companies around the world to start testing the technology and providing feedback. Typically, after six months or more of such evaluation, the standard is made final. Right now, Chicago TV stations WCPX and WPRW, Washington, D.C., station WPXW, and others are broadcasting ATSC Mobile DTV as part of the first field trials of the technology. The coalition has announced it will perform consumer trials in Washington, D.C., and more experimental broadcasts and market tests of consumer equipment will likely take place throughout the rest of 2009 and early 2010, with products expected to appear on retail shelves in 2010.