With the advent of Olympic fever, all eyes will be on China next month. Aside from the political, security and logistical concerns of the Games, a major factor that will influence world opinion on China is technology.
China watchers await whether the country will be able to prove its global competitive edge and emerge as a generator and early adopter of cutting-edge developments. There is also the question of whether China could take the lead of the impending mobile TV consumer revolution. One thing is for sure, it's going to try.
With well over 600 million subscribers, the Chinese mobile industry represents huge business potential. Like in Japan and Korea, mobile users in China are typically very keen on new technology. They replace devices more often than a typical Western user does and they like multimedia applications - characteristics that make a good recipe for mass-market adoption of mobile TV.
Using the Olympics as a showcase for launching commercial mobile TV in China is, in itself, a powerful move. The beauty of mobile TV is that it brings anytime, anywhere viewing, which is essential for sporting moments such as the men's 110 meter hurdles final in which China stands a strong chance of winning the gold. So with the timetable set, how does China plan to deliver the goods‾
With mobile TV trials now in six major cities in mainland China, public pilot runs in 35 cities are set to begin this month. Near national mobile digital TV broadcast coverage is estimated by the time the Games begin in early August. China is strongly committed to CMMB, its homegrown MDTV broadcasting standard. The introduction of CMMB (also known as S-TIMI or satellite terrestrial interactive multi-service infrastructure), which is based on China's independent intellectual property, reflects the strong desire of China to upgrade its brand label of global manufacturing shop to lucrative global technology IP creator.
Developed and backed up by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, CMMB is expected to rapidly become the mobile TV technology used by more people than any other digital TV technology. The CMMB network will be uniquely comprised initially of just the terrestrial broadcast signal, with the satellite band anticipated to be in operation by the end of 2008 or early 2009. The terrestrial broadcast signal is effective in obtaining effective coverage both in densely populated cities, including indoor reception, as well as in sparsely populated rural areas.
China is so committed to rolling out mobile TV that the government has pledged subsidies for the first year to support the development of technology and increase consumer demand. CSM, which is responsible for the terrestrial infrastructure and its synchronization with the satellite network, is one of the first companies to commit to the project. (Echostar has delayed its launch of satellite services.)
China's largest mobile operators are currently sitting on the fence with respect to CMMB. On one hand they encourage certain mobile phone makers to support CMMB, but on the other hand they have not yet publicly announced fully pledged support for it. It appears that they are waiting to see how CMMB takes off before committing themselves to it. Therefore, the initial wave of CMMB devices at and right after the Olympic Games is likely to comprise mostly non-connected devices such as notebooks, portable media players, portable navigation devices, pocket TVs, USB sticks and other accessories for such devices.
CMMB services will begin as 'free to air', offering around 25 channels. Next year, a conditional access system will be applied and a pay-TV business model will emerge in parallel to the free-to-air channels. Starting out with a free-to-air service may prove a crucial factor in determining mass-market adoption of mobile TV in China.
There is also no doubt as to the important role that chip makers will play in determining the successful roll-out of mobile TV in China. CMMB receiver chips will have to exhibit excellent reception performance both from terrestrial towers and from satellite, which will require antenna diversity support. Reception in high-speed mobile conditions is another important aspect of reception performance. In addition, CMMB chips must have low battery consumption to support anytime viewing on end-devices. Finally, for mass-market adoption, the cost of CMMB chips must be sufficiently low to allow integration into affordable device models.
MDTV is expanding from home to everywhere as the TV world is changing from a stationary, satellite or tethered paradigm and a typical group viewing experience to supporting a more personal viewing experience on portable wireless devices. The multimedia-hungry culture, combined with an initial free-to-air service model, could prove a powerful combination for the rapid success of mobile TV in China.
Alon Ironi is the CEO of Siano Mobile Silicon