The road to wealth from mobile DTV is far from clear, but one obstacle broadcasters apparently don’t have to worry about is retrofitting their stations to broadcast the on-the-go video service. Vendors are lining up with all the boxes stations will need and pioneering broadcast engineers say that they are not tough to install. However, the price tag — $60,000 to $160,000 — may discourage some from implementing the service before the revenue is real.
Broadcasters have high hopes for mobile DTV, figuring that it will catch on quickly as a new way to watch broadcast TV on the go and provide a badly needed new source of revenue.
If those hopes are ultimately dashed, it will not be because of the difficulty of outfitting a TV station to broadcast the mobile signal. However, some may balk at the price tag: between $60,000 and $125,000.
According to mobile DTV pioneers, going mobile is a half day’s work.
“Think of this as a bolt-on, an add-on to your existing digital transmitter, not the major change of going from analog to digital,” says Brett Jenkins, vice president of technology at ION Media Networks, one of the first broadcasters to offer digital mobile in New York.
“It’s taking us on average three to four hours, literally, to take a broadcasting station and add the necessary three or four boxes in a rack for mobile transmission.”
Jim Ocon, vice president of technology for Gray Television, says it took “less than half a day to do the modifications” and get WOWT Omaha, Neb., up and running with mobile.
Mobile DTV is based on a standard that is being written by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and being nurtured and promoted by the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a consortium of leading broadcast group and technology companies.
With the standard and a small portion of stations’ 19.4 Mbps digital channel, TV stations could be able to broadcast full-motion video to an array of portable and mobile receivers, even if they are in cars racing down the freeway.
The list of things broadcasters need for mobile DTV includes an MPEG-4 encoder for each mobile channel and a signaling generator, which differentiates one signal from another, says Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology for Harris.
The encoder and signaling generator put out IP streams that are brought together in a mobile adapter or multiplexer. Broadcasters also need an exciter to do mobile post-processing and, Adrick recommends, a monitoring receiver to verify that the signals are on the air correctly.
“The package for one encoding channel, the signaling generator, the mobile networking adapter and the exciter from Harris runs about $165,000 and we’ve been typically selling that to our best customers in the $120,000 range,” he says.
To add a second channel, broadcasters will need another $15,000 to $18,000, the price of an encoder, he says.
Ocon says Gray invested about $100,000 in Harris’ technology to broadcast WOWT’s mobile channel, “but we expect that cost to go down.”
WOWT has demonstrated its system, broadcasting signals to a Dell netbook computer and an LG handheld both equipped with mobile DTV chipsets. “I am pretty impressed with the performance characteristics that I have seen so far.”
WRAL Raleigh, N.C., is conducting what it calls an unscientific “show-me” test in conjunction with Harris, the city’s public transportation system and LG Electronics.
Five Capital Area Transit buses have been outfitted with LG monitors so they can receive a simulcast of WRAL’s regular TV programs, plus weather radar and forecasts, city news, bus news and schedules.
“Setting it up involved little more than adding an MPEG-4 encoder to our exciter,” says Pete Sockett, WRAL’s chief engineer. “We add a daughter card to make the exciter mobile capable and feed it video and audio.”
He declines to say how much the equipment cost since the station is still in the early trial phases.
WRAL, he says, uses about 2.5 megabits to broadcast the mobile signal.
Besides the buses, the station gives employees mobile receivers to randomly drive about testing signal strength.
“For the most part, it is as advertised,” he says. “We’re really pleased and I’m not saying that to be any sort of marketing guy or whatever. We’re still running a lot of testing to understand what the coverage is.”
Reception with the receivers in cars and buses is easiest to test, he says. “We’re seeing good signals easily 40 miles away from a transmitter with a vehicle mounted system.”
According to Anne Schelle, executive director of the OMVC, the apparent ease with which stations can mobilize for mobile is no accident.
OMVC sponsored conformance testing to let manufacturers interconnect and test their equipment and to ensure that “everybody is interpreting the standard the same way,” she says. “The standard is so clear that when you build this product everybody builds it the same way.”
Harris was quick to jump into the space, but others, including Linear Industries, are not far behind.
Linear now builds an exciter and would like to do more.
But Linear vice president Perry Priestley says the “the ATSC committee has not been what I consider as fair as possible.
Key information is being withheld, he says. “In terms of the multiplexer and other components that are required external to the transmitter, we don’t have access to that information so we can’t manufacture them. But we will.”
Linear’s problem sounds like a breakdown in the lines of communications, says Mark Aitken, chair of the ATSC Mobile DTV Standardization Committee and the director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Linear came to the table after the specs had been placed into a 900-page document and so faced the “daunting task” of sorting through all the ins and outs of the standard.
It’s up to Linear and other manufacturers to bring any problems or questions to his attention, Aitken says.
“I’ve used my offices to make available any and all resources to resolve questions,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that you snap your fingers and the problem’s solved.”
Priestly pegs the cost of gearing up for mobile at between $60,000 and $100,000, but between even that range will discourage hard-pressed broadcasters. “My general feeling is mobile TV is going to be a slow implementation,” he says.
However, Ion’s Jenkins says, the costs of the equipment should drop.
“We know our typical vendors in this space will figure out better and cheaper ways to do things and in time those costs will come down. I’m confident that it’s within reach and those kinds of economics are within reach of most large to mid-market stations even in today’s economy,” he says.
Other companies are offering or plan to offer mobile DTV transmission gear, including Axcera, Acrodyne Industries, DMT USA, Larcan, Pro-Television, Rohde & Schwarz, RRD (Screen Services) and Thomson/Grass Valley.
“What’s more interesting to me as a broadcaster are the companies that are working on it and not saying anything, but show up at NAB with a dynamite product,” Aitken added.
Even OMVC’s Schelle acknowledges that there will be no urgency to broadcast mobile DTV services until cell phone manufacturers begin selling phones capable of receiving them.
“Right now if you went to L.A. you could pick up signal; if you went to Seattle you could pick up signal; if you went to San Francisco you could pick up signal. But you wouldn’t have anything to pick it up with,” she says.
“That’s going to change pretty quickly.”