Hungry Mobile Video: Will Next-Generation TV Feed the Beast?

Bandwidth-hungry video is viewed as an insatiable beast by those who are delivering it over crowded networks. Better compression and mobile network advances have relieved some congestion but the flames of UHD and virtual reality are licking at the heels of cellular networks.

TV broadcasters think they can help relieve some of that congestion with the new next-generation DTT system, ATSC 3.0. Many see the new set of standards as a way to deliver the highest-quality UHD programs and a method for harmonizing broadband and broadcast delivery. Other broadcasters think it’s most important job will be to broadcast video programming to mobile devices like smartphones.

Broadcasting instead of unicasting is already a more efficient use of resources but the new system, which specifies HEVC, AC-4 and MPEG-H compression standards and can be better optimized for mobile transmissions than the current standard, promises to be a complement to distributing video content over cellular networks and the internet.

And, yes, it has been tried before. Qualcomm’s MediaFLO, which provided broadcasted pay TV services using licenses in the 700 MHz band, closed up shop back in 2011. Select U.S. free-to-air broadcasters deployed mobile TV services with the ATSC-M/H standard, which was developed to be backward compatible with the current DTT system, ATSC.  Neither of these succeeded, ditto for a similar effort in Europe with the DVB-H standard. What went wrong?

Most attribute the failure of MediaFLO to the pay business model coupled with a limited line up of programming.  ATSC M/H, most say, suffered from a lack of receivers in a classic “chicken and egg” conundrum. In addition, the availability of mobile content rights was spotty and content offerings suffered.  So, why should it be different this time?

The difference may very well be a combination of timing and technology.  Consumer demand and network congestion is much greater now and the media ecosystem is better attuned to making deals for mobile programming rights.  The next-generation TV standard affords greater capacity over a 6MHz channel and according to all the smart RF engineers I know, allows for better reception to mobile devices in the open and indoors.

The largest group TV station owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group and its ONE Media subsidiary, has publicly stated its intent to transition from the current-generation TV to the next-generation TV with an emphasis on mobile broadcasting. To that end, it has inked a deal with Indian chipset developer Saankhya Labs to develop ATSC 3.0 chipsets designed to operate at lower power than chips used in stationary devices.  This is an unusual move in the broadcast community, which traditionally stays clear of consumer-device development.

Most industry insiders agree, however, that the heavy lifting is getting the handset makers and their wireless carrier bosses to allow receivers to go into handsets. Combining broadcast and unicast reception to a single device should help clear up some of that network congestion, but wireless carriers may see that relief coming at a high cost to their video-service ambitions.

Free-to-air programming to mobile devices hasn’t really been well-tested and maybe now is the time to do it. Despite offerings of “no data charges” for mobile video from some wireless carriers, the asterisks that accompany that statement have already been decoded by consumers. So, will it work this time?  Who knows, but it looks like we’re going to find out.