LTE Broadcast: Coming to a European operator soon?

What a week that was.

"What's LTE?" shouted a journalist across a crowded newsroom at a trade fair I recently attended in Amsterdam.

The journalist seems a little behind the times, you might think--until I then tell you that the trade fair was IBC, and journalists there are more preoccupied with 2D, HD, 3D and when HEVC will come to market than with LTE.

However, IBC (which stands for International Broadcasting Convention) has long recognised the overlaps between broadcast and telecoms, of course, and introduced the Connected World exhibition around the time mobile industry executives were still getting excited about DVB-H and the prospects for video and TV services on mobile devices.

In those heady days when mobile broadcast TV was the next big thing (often the death knell for any technology), telecoms and broadcast journalists increasingly found themselves in the same room for press conferences about MediaFlo's latest developments, DVB-H trials and spats between TV broadcasters and mobile operators on spectrum allocations.

As we now know, it all came to nothing: DVB-H services launched in Europe were closed down, and Qualcomm closed its MediaFlo business and sold the FLO TV operations centre in San Diego to QuickPlay Media.

Since then, video has come to mobile devices almost through the back door for non-mobile operators and broadcasters thanks to the proliferation of connected smartphones and tablets, and Connected World is now awash with companies all playing their part in the multi-screen and second-screen ecosystem.

Indeed, if you wanted to know what happened to former MediaFlo executives, many of them are at these very companies that are now helping broadcasters and telecoms operators to realise their multi-screen, IPTV and over-the-top video strategies. QuickPlay's director of sales engineering, Michael Martinez, moved over as part of the FLO acquisition, and former MediaFlo executive Melanie Honnor became a director of EMEA business development at Qualcomm Labs.

The dream of mobile broadcast TV for mobile operators never died, of course, and the latest evolution in this area is LTE Broadcast, which was much in conversation at IBC. Could LTE Broadcast be the technology that succeeds where others failed, and help mobile operators solve the problem of heavy video usage on 3G and LTE networks?

Ericsson has always believed in the idea of multicast services to help reduce the load on unicast cellular networks and has been steadily working on the standard behind LTE Broadcast for several years along with others such as MobiTV, Alcatel-Lucent and Media Excel. LTE Broadcast from Ericsson combines the three standard--eMBMS, HEVC and MPEG DASH--whereby eMBMS (Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) is a 3GPP standard that enables mobile networks to offer broadcast/multicast services dynamically to offload issues of popular content in dense consumption scenarios.

Essentially, LTE Broadcast allows the same content to be sent to a large number of subscribers at the same time, resulting in a more efficient use of network resources than each user requesting the same content and then having the content unicast to each user.

During IBC, David Price, an Ericsson vice president of business development, and Qualcomm's Honnor highlighted the advantages of LTE Broadcast, including the fact that operators will be able to use existing spectrum and devices for the services. These were two of the main stumbling blocks for DVB-H, for example. Price said LTE Broadcast can also be switched on and off at will, so it could be used for one-off events in large stadiums, for example.

Furthermore, two major telecoms operators have already committed to the technology: Verizon Wireless is planning a commercial launch in 2014, and Telstra in Australia has also said it plans to trial the technology.

So far, operators in Europe have been quiet on LTE Broadcast, but there is little doubt that they will be talking to vendors such as Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent about the benefits of the technology. There will also no doubt be scepticism right now, not least because of what happened before, but the conversation that began at CES this year and continued at Mobile World Congress looks set to continue further.

Soon, perhaps even broadcast journalists could find themselves writing about LTE.--Anne