It's been six years since mobile broadcast TV caught the mobile industry's imagination as a way for cellcos to deliver video services to mobile subscribers without overburdening their 3G networks. Following the hype of mobile broadcast technology rollouts like S-DMB and T-DMB in Korea, and ISDB-T 1seg in Japan, Europe-backed DVB-H and Qualcomm's MediaFLO were soon scrambling for mindshare and customers.
Since then, however, mobile TV's star hasn't faded so much as been repositioned in the face of market realities - namely spectrum availability, device costs, an uncertain business model and the rising popularity of over-the-top video.
To be sure, mobile video as a service concept remains a hot ticket. A recent Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan study found that video content ranks as the biggest influence on customer perceptions of value of telecoms services bundles, with wireless also high on the list, suggesting that "wireless services will increasingly be defined by the degree to which they enable consumption of video content", as well as how that plays in a larger (i.e. quadruple-play) ecosystem.
Meanwhile, the latest Visual Networking Index from Cisco Systems predicts that video will account for 66% of all global mobile data traffic by 2014 (that means two-thirds of 40 exabytes a year) at a 66-fold growth rate from 2009 - a higher rate than any other mobile app. And ABI Research is projecting mobile video services to be a $2 billion business worldwide by 2013.
However, the Cisco and ABI figures are for wireless broadband data networks. In the case of ABI, that $2 billion includes a variety of video apps - video telephony, video messaging, video sharing and video-on-demand, among others. Cellcos have already been launching various video services, from clips to streaming video, as they move up the speed chain to HSPA and HSPA+ (and EV-DO Rev B, where applicable), and as dongles and smartphones become increasingly significant mobile content drivers.
Between that, better video compression technology and the global economic situation putting pressure on operators to invest more in existing assets rather than another overlay network, mobile operators have been less inclined to turn to dedicated broadcast platforms.
But there's still hope for mobile broadcast TV via up-and-coming technology solutions like push content and free-to-air chipsets, as well as the certainty from vendors that 3.5G and even 4G networks will only be able to run video on their networks for so long before the capacity strain takes its toll.
More than TV
Certainly Qualcomm is still bullish on MediaFLO as an offload option for cellcos.
"Operators who are selling iPhones are seeing their network clog and are looking at offloading the most popular content onto a mobile broadcast network, and let the 3G network handle the long-tail content," says Ali Zamiri, Qualcomm's Asia business development director for MediaFLO technologies.
Ronen Jashek, marketing VP for mobile TV chipset maker Siano, adds that the migration to LTE isn't going to solve congestion problems when it comes to mobile video.
"For live TV with high quality video - QVGA with 30 fps - there is no way 3.5G or even 4G can do that in the near term without jeopardizing their data services," he says.
Another angle to this - and one that Qualcomm is pushing more aggressively these days - is that mobile broadcast TV platforms are becoming more than just a mobile version of cable TV with a modicum of interactive features like SMS voting.
"A lot of the operators I talk to already have mobile TV services, and they want to take it a step further with integrated datacasting/clipcasting offering, so when you wake up you already have your content pushed to your device," says Qualcomm's Zamiri.
As an example, Zamiri points to a project with Japanese operator KDDI to build a MediaFLO platform as part of a plan to bid for a national mobile TV license in Japan scheduled to be awarded before we went to press. (NTT DoCoMo is bidding for the same license using ISDB-Tmm [mobile multimedia].) KDDI's vision is to create a mobile TV platform that not only offers TV channels, but also serves as a push channel for popular content.
"KDDI has a lot of people using their 3G network for downloading songs, manga, games, etc. They want to use MediaFLO so that users can enter their content preferences and then have that content pushed to them regularly so they don't have to search for it," Zamiri explains.
Pushing content via broadcast is not only a cheaper way to deliver content to users, but also creates new revenue options, Zamiri says. "MediaFLO can push the Top Ten UK chart songs and Top Ten J-Pop songs to your device, and you can try and buy. If you like it, you can but it and keep it and the rest get deleted on the next push, and KDDI will make money through revenue sharing for song purchases, magazine purchases, comics and books."
MediaFLO on the block
But while Qualcomm may be serious about its ambitions for MediaFLO, that ambition may only go so far. In July (shortly after our interview with Zamiri), Qualcomm confirmed that its MediaFLO unit was for sale and it is in active discussions with potential buyers.
Qualcomm declined to comment on the discussions or give a reason for dropping MediaFLO after investing over $1 billion in its US network alone, but chief executive Paul Jacobs has said subscriber uptake has been below expectations.
Meanwhile, Juniper Research analyst Dr Windsor Holden said the decision was understandable.
"MediaFLO has been hamstrung by various factors, many of which have been outside its control," Dr Holden said in a research note. "The delay in analog switch off prevented it from gaining national coverage; its partners set the service price at too high a level which put off potential customers."
It doesn't help that MediaFLO has a rival in the states: ATSC-M/H, a free-to-air technology and a mobile version of the country's ATSC A/53 digital broadcasting standard.
"The broadcast community [in the US] is very much behind ATSC-M/H, and were not really that much behind MediaFLO," says Jashek of Siano, though he adds that ATSC-M/H is still in the trial stage and isn't likely to see significant take-up until mid-2012.
Still, says Holden of Juniper Research, "When you factor in likely free to air competition over ATSC-M/H in the medium term, then clearly MediaFLO faces a difficult future in the US."
Other offload options
Holden does add that MediaFLO may have better long-term prospects in Asian markets such as Japan and Taiwan, and that its data-centric focus and in-vehicle segment still make it an attractive proposition.
That said, Holden isn't particularly bullish on dedicated mobile TV technologies when compared to cellular-based mobile video. A recent Juniper report estimated that subscribers to dedicated mobile TV services using DVB-H, DMB, MediaFLO and CMMB (the technology developed by China's state broadcast regulator SARFT) will break the 10 million mark by 2013 - by which time there will be over 180 million users watching mobile TV via 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi.
In fact, Holden says, the spread of free Wi-Fi services alone could boost the mobile TV industry to a nearly $7 billion business by 2015, with mobile TV traffic over Wi-Fi expected to increase by 25x over the next five years.
Which brings us back to the video offload issue, as Holden notes that 3.5G and 4G networks will indeed struggle to keep up with video traffic demand, and Wi-Fi offload will help ... but not much.
"Cellular networks are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver high quality mobile TV services at times of peak usage" he says, citing the World Cup as an example when viewing figures will spike to levels that can overwhelm cellular capacity. "Wi-Fi can ameliorate this in the short term, but this is only a partial remedy."
But while that sounds like an ideal pitch for dedicated mobile TV platforms, there's another up-and-coming offload option of sorts for cellcos: Integrated Mobile Broadcast (IMB), a technology originally developed by TDD champion IPWireless that is now defined in the 3GPP Release 8 standards, and endorsed by the GSM Association as their preferred method for broadcast services delivery for mobile operators.
IMB's major selling point, apart from its 3GPP pedigree, is that it operates in unpaired TDD spectrum, which is already gaining traction via TD-LTE, the TDD sibling to FDD-based LTE. Cellcos planning their migration to LTE who are also looking at TD-LTE as a complementary option (and a way to have extra capacity on tap) could implement IMB as a broadcast TV solution that is also designed to hand off to FDD WCDMA networks.
A few cellcos in the UK - Vodafone, Orange and O2 - are planning IMB trials, and IPWireless has already signed an agreement with Huawei Technologies for service trials and interoperability tests.
The FTA wild card
Meanwhile, the potential wild card in the mobile broadcast TV race remains free-to-air (FTA) mobile TV - i.e. enabling mobile devices to receive the same FTA channels available via a regular TV set. ATSC-M/H is a specialized example for the US market, but chipset maker Telegent has been targeting emerging markets like China, India, and parts of Africa and Latin America with chips capable of picking up analog TV signals like PAL, NTSC and SECAM, and, soon, digital TV on the DVB-T standard.
Uptake has been on the slow side, which Telegent CEO Ford Tamer credits to a combination of technical issues - "At a high level, I'd leave it as picture quality," he told Wireless Asia, adding that a new solution addressing that is in the pipeline for later this year - and getting price points down to a level where analog TV becomes a standard feature in handsets. Tamer won't say what that price point is, but adds, "We're rapidly approaching that."
Tamer is optimistic of FTA mobile TV's chances, saying that "we've only just scratched the surface, maybe 20% of the available market for ATV [analog TV], so the potential is definitely there to ramp beyond where we are today."
The other major untapped potential is digital TV, which has yet to happen on a significant scale in the emerging markets Telegent targets, and where it has happened, it hasn't achieved the kind of scale that appeals to chipset makers, Tamer says.
"With digital the issue really is volumes. As a semiconductor manufacturer, if you're not selling in the tens of millions it's really not interesting," he says. "Analog TV is there, but it's going to take time for digital TV to get to that level of adoption.
Meanwhile, Telegent is developing a dual-mode analog-digital TV solution to make FTA mobile TV more appealing in markets facing that transition.
"In a lot of the markets we're talking about, digital may only be available in the capitals, then when you go outside of the capitals there's no digital signal," Tamer says. "Try finding complete coverage in a lot of these countries, and it doesn't exist. So a dual solution - ATV and DTV - makes sense."
Mobile TV: It pays to be cheap, free and regulator-supported
For vendors and potential service providers who haven't completely given up on the idea of dedicated mobile broadcast platforms, signs of hope can be found in the handful of markets where it has taken off, says Ronen Jashek, marketing VP for mobile TV chipset maker Siano.
"The biggest success is in Asia - Japan, Korea and China - and in Latin America, starting with Brazil," he says.
However, Jashek qualifies that success by pointing out that mobile TV has taken off in those markets for a couple of key reasons: strong regulator support and services being offered either for free or for cheap.
"In Brazil, for example, the government mandated that for the first few years, the service will be free, so you get high adoption rates," he says. "And China's CMMB service from China Mobile and CBC isn't free, but it's quite cheap," with subscription rates as low as 3 RMB a month.
China's potential as a mobile TV powerhouse is set to kick into high gear by the end of this year as CBC bundles its service fees with CMMB devices and China Mobile changes its strategy to focus on low-end CMMB phones rather than smartphones.
"That means a delay in the market because the phone vendors have to accommodate this into their design cycle," Jashek says. "But overall it's good, because six months from now you're going to see CMMB and CMMB-TD phones for 1,000 RMB."
Meanwhile, China Mobile is already primed to extend CMMB into Hong Kong after its local subsidiary won the SAR's mobile TV spectrum auction at the end of June with a HK$175 million ($22.5 million) bid, although China Mobile HK hasn't yet confirmed which technology it will use in the 678-686 MHz band.