Another year, another 3GSM event and, not unexpectedly, mobile TV was this year's chief buzz generator, although much of it was recycled from last year - DVB-H is coming, MediaFLO is coming, DMB is already here, etc. Still, there were some differences - like the 120-odd operators now offering mobile TV in one form or another. And the painful news that, in Europe, according to an M:Metrics survey commissioned by Tellabs, former mobile TV users outnumber current users by 19%.
Well, that's how it goes with new technology. If it's any consolation, the chief complaints reported in the study - price, reliability and quality - are almost identical to those that 3G services first encountered, and skeptics then were ready to declare 3G a dud that no one wanted.
SAME OR DIFFERENT NETWORK
The mobile TV picture has been getting more complex over the past year on several fronts. On the technology side, there's the arrival of MBMS (Multimedia Broadcast and Multicast Services), which as part of the 3GPP standard uses existing 3G spectrum and infrastructure, as opposed to DVB-H, DMB, ISDB-T and MediaFLO, which require new networks and frequencies. Ericsson, Qualcomm and Huawei were demonstrating MBMS at 3GSM, and Qualcomm expects handsets and commercial deployments to kick off this year, which is bound to revive the debate over whether you need a separate network for mobile TV.
DVB-H champions like Nokia say you do because even with MBMS, which allows operators to more effectively run video by multicasting streams to phones rather than the unicasting they do now, operators will need more capacity for video than their 3G spectrum will allow, and that offloading broadcast TV onto a separate network and spectrum band will keep their data networks free to handle heavy traffic.
Of course, IPWireless - whose TDTv technology does what MBMS does but focuses on TDD spectrum - has been saying the same thing for the last year or so. Most TDD spectrum is lying around unused, so why not run your TV channels there?
That's a good question when looking at the spectrum issues DVB-H and other technologies face. Europe, which isn't expecting UHF broadcast frequencies to be available before 2012, is exploring opening up the L-band. And Alcatel-Lucent has been promoting DVB-SH for use in the S-band, but higher frequencies mean shorter signal range, which means higher rollout costs, not to mention even worse reception indoors.
The other argument against relying solely on in-band 3G is channel selection: DVB-H, DMB and MediaFLO can deliver far more channels than MBMS, and you need a wide variety of channels to reach the widest possible audience to ensure you have something for almost everyone.
Somehow that doesn't quite scan when IPTV is winning fans worldwide by allowing them to choose which channels to pay for instead of the cable TV model of paying a huge fee for 50 channels of which you'll watch maybe half a dozen. It makes even less sense in a world where the Slingbox exists. Why pay for 12 or 50 channels of mobile TV when I can use Slingbox to send my IPTV to my phone (as 3 customers can already do via Hutchison's X Series)?
None of this necessarily spells doom for DVB-H, MediaFLO, etc.
It's quite likely there's room for all these technologies. The point is that TV viewers' expectations are changing thanks to developments outside of the mobile space, from IPTV and timeshifting to interactivity and VOD. The IPTV sector is already working on HD and more interactive programming and EPGs (electronic program guides), and the mobile TV sector is still sorting out technologies and spectrum availability.
Maybe that's why the announcement at 3GSM that Nokia will preload YouTube's mobile RSS feed into its N series handsets is a potentially bigger deal in the development of mobile video. Not that people would rather watch YouTube over popular TV shows like "Lost" and "Prison Break" - but it's a textbook example of interactive on-demand content designed for the "snacking" that's expected to comprise the majority mobile TV viewing. And no extra network or spectrum required.