Think About It: 300M Mobile DTV Receivers

There's precedent for mandating DTV tuners in all new cell phones. NAB and others need to make a push to convince Congress of the benefits. For starters, a tuner in every phone would help insure that free, universal TV would live on as a basic high-quality video service for all Americans. Plus, it would also make Americans safer. In a catastrophe, the cell phone network is likely to become overwhelmed and be far more likely to fail than all the individual TV transmitters in a market.

Let’s put a mobile DTV receiver in the pocket of every American so that they can tune into their favorite broadcast show anytime, anywhere — in the store, on the bus, at the dentist.

How do we do it? Convince Congress to mandate DTV tuners in all new cell phones.

There is precedent. In 1962, Congress passed the All-Channel Receiver Act requiring UHF tuners in all TV sets. Forty years later, drawing authority from the act, the FCC required digital tuners in some sets starting in July 2004 and in all sets after July 2007.

Now, in an effort to end the long standoff over music royalties, the NAB and the recording industry are working on compromise legislation that, among other things, would mandate FM tuners in all cell phones. Though controversial, it could become law.

What a good idea.

A mobile DTV tuner mandate would not put a phone in the pocket of all Americans. Some are too poor or too young to own cell phones. Others, believe it or not, just don’t roll with phones. They don’t want to be on the grid 24/7 for whatever reason.


But it would come pretty darn close. According to CTIA, the wireless trade group, as of last December, there were 285.6 million wireless subscribers. That’s a big number, especially when you consider that there were about 305 million people in the U.S. at the time.

Given those numbers, a tuner mandate would revolutionize broadcasting. The medium would no longer be defined (and confined) by 114 million TV homes.

It would truly become broadcasting for the first time in the sense that people could have access to it nearly everywhere, just like AM and FM. (Nearly. You can forget about the New York subways. Nothing gets down there.)

Broadcasters would be able to monetize the huge mobile audience by selling advertising or subscriptions or both. Viewership of a cell phone could be measured in real time just as it is on cable boxes.

But there’s no doubt a tuner mandate would be a tough sell in Washington. The big problem would probably be cost. According to Sinclair’s Mark Aitken, as big a proponent of mobile DTV as there is, a mobile DTV tuner would add between $10 and $20 to each cell phone, half of it going to patent holders. That’s a lot of dough in the consumer electronics would where component costs are often tabulated in pennies.

Aitken says that whenever you approach cell phone vendors about mobile DTV, the first thing they ask is who’s going to pay for it.

The CEA and phone vendors are flipping out over the prospect of a mandated FM tuner and, according to Aitken, that would add no more than $1 to the cost. Imagine the outcry if the broadcasters started pushing mobile DTV tuners.

Another obstacle would be the current FCC leadership and other policymakers who don’t want to do anything to perpetuate broadcasting.

Remember, they have already concluded that the future of media in the U.S. belongs to wireless broadband. They want broadcasting to wither so that can recapture the spectrum and auction it for broadband.

But a strong case for mobile DTV tuners can be made, some of it right from the FM tuner playbook.

For starters, broadcasters could argue that a tuner in every phone would help insure that free, universal TV would live on as a basic high-quality video service for all Americans, no matter how much money they have and despite what the broadband elite say.

It would also make Americans safer. In emergencies, broadcast radio and TV have always filled critical roles in keeping citizens informed and morale up. In a catastrophe, the cell phone network is likely to become overwhelmed and be far more likely to fail than all the individual TV transmitters in a market.

Much has been written lately about all the wonderful new local news services popping up on the Web. But none have proven themself in a crisis as TV broadcasters have time and time again. None has the experience, resources and talent. Where are you going to turn when the creek rises? Patch?

Broadcasters should be able to negotiate their way onto cell phones. That’s one of the reasons why Fox, NBC, Ion and nine leading TV station group are forming Mobile Content Ventures. And why many other groups are organizing as The Mobile 500. They will have the weight and numbers to deal with the carriers and vendors.

And if the carriers and vendors think they can make money by installing tuners into the phone, they will do it.

If for any reason those efforts stall or fail, the NAB ought to step right in and go for a mandate.

I’ve got a feeling that NAB is going to get its compromise with the FM tuner mandate. And if NAB can do it for FM, it can do it for TV.



Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You can reach him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]

Comments (33)

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Kathryn Miller says:

August 27, 2010 at 10:53 am

Mark Aitken is effectively the father of mobile DTV in the U.S., having shepherded the process, and, on a personal note he paved the way for little ole me to participate in the development of the ATSC standard, for which I am eternally grateful. The many people who have spent more than 2 years on the development of the standard (including the soon-to-emerge non-real-time (think podcasting) broadcast standard would like to see MDTV take off.

Receivers are certainly a challenge, as is whether broadcasters can leverage their existing content to MDTV and then there’s the business model. Charging consumers a hidden tax for a really cool feature that they didn’t request and may not want is not a path to success. Just the fab cost of a MDTV chipset, at volume, and when there are a second and third vendor for receiver chips {two of them are having problems right now making their chips work) will cost, in volume, about $8.00 per unit, plus the IPR payments. At retail — or as an increased subsidy by the carrier — will translate to $10 or more per unit.

Having the government mandate the tuners and presentation subsystem into units is certainly one approach. I’m rather suprised that Mark and Sinclair are behind such an idea, due to their economic and political stances, which I largely agree with. It must be due to frustration.

Here’s a much better idea, one driven by market forces. Cell phone companies are heavy television advertisers. Broadcasters — through existing groups, or after forming a commercial exchange of some type — should trade advertising time against each carrier’s subsidy of Mobile DTV additions. Yes, the broadcasters that do this will suffer a hit on the bottom line. But, so would cell phone companies that otherwise wouldn’t have any way to cover the cost. Call it short term pain in exchange for long term gain; an investment in your future.

As an opening political ploy, this isn’t a bad one. Unlike cell phone comapnies, I’m very much pro-broadcasting. I suspect that mobile phone companies are much less pro-broadcasting than the rest of us are. It’s hard to imagine that this hasn’t been proposed by the cell phone companies. (I know at least a bit more here than I can say due to various confidences.) Bottom line: when are television broadcasters who favor Mobile DTV going to INVEST in their future? It’s odd to expect consumers to pay a hidden tax for this, and odder to expect mobile telephone companies to invest in a greenfield business opportunity for broadcasters.

Kathryn Miller says:

August 27, 2010 at 10:55 am

oops, $10 or more should have been $100 or more

mike tomasino says:

August 27, 2010 at 11:36 am

A FM receiver is one thing, a mobile DTV receiver is another. I wouldn’t mind the extra cost of the FM receiver, but I don’t watch video on my phone, don’t plan on doing so, and don’t want to pay extra for my phone to have it. I’m one of the biggest supporters of free TV out there, and I don’t like this idea. Broadcasters can make the public aware of mobile and other free services without resorting to this type of government mandate.

Doug Halonen says:

August 27, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Harry Jessell correctly points out the many upsides to a DTV tuner mandate. I recently bought a small portable DTV at CVS (of all places) for under $80. Not only does it make me aware of where digital signals are — None of NBC’s reaches the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the 9th floor, but all the signals from ABC, CBS, Fox, and PBS do — but it also has a wonderful use when connected to a digital cable feed. It picks up every available station, including sub-carriers, broadcast stations, and cable networks in HD as well as SD. One would think that a tall enough antenna connection would yield even more broadcast stations. Back in the day, nobody below the 40th floor got a clear picture with analog TV and an antenna in Manhattan.

How this would work for mobile phones makes me recall the Sony Watchman of 25 years ago. It worked but the reception was not great in urban areas. But we can now get radio in the Lincoln Tunnel, thanks to some clever wiring by the Port Authority. If the MTA were to do the same for subway tunnels, there is no reason why we could not get our digital signals on the New York City subway.

I do remember when the mobile phone grid was overwhelmed. It happened almost nine years ago on the morning of 11 September 2001. Unfortunately, the event also knocked out all New York TV transmitters located at the World Trade Center. Only the transmitters at the top of the Empire State Office Building continued to work. Since then, several real estate developers have put TV and radio antennae atop new midtown office towers. If broadcasters have invested in backup transmitters, perhaps we’d still get our TV signals in the event of a similar disaster.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 27, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Ted’s comment underscores a point that Harry left out of his excellent proposal: The current ATSC standard delivers the highest-quality HD signal to a new generation of tiny digital TVs, including those 3.5′ to 4″ models that fit into the palm of your hand — about the same size as an iPod. Yes, a viewer must stand or sit relatively still to receive a picture. But most people don’t move around when watching TV, and you never should watch TV while driving or walking near traffic.

    As an interim measure, the industry should actively promote these tiny DTV sets, especially the iPod- size units that run on standard AA batteries — a necessity in inclement weather zones, where those rechargeable battery units would be rendered useless after an hour or two.

    Nay sayers might suggest that consumers won’t want to carry around a cellphone and a tiny DTV. Well, some are paying for broadcast signals via subscription schemes like FLO TV; why not tote around a receiver that gets broadcast stations for free? To me, this is a no-brainer. The Auvio/Digital TV Solutions models, at about $80 on sale, are among the hottest electronics items you hardly ever see advertised. Why is that? Because the fat-cats want your viewers to pay for what they can get for free — and in high-def, not a somewhat degraded mobile DTV standard.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 27, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Unfortunately, Philly, you apparently have yet to learn that one of the significant advantages of Mobile DTV in battery operated receivers is that the MDTV technology at it’s heart maximizes battery life while receiving. A set receiving a fixed service may operate for — let’s say — an hour while watching a “fixed” channel and a set receiving a mobile service may be able to receive 6 hours on the same batteries. Essentially NOBODY is paying for FLO.TV; Qualcomm has yet to report a penny of revenue. And, you are confused about the fat cats wanting to charge for Mobile DTV; the powers that be recognize the power of free tv, and some may also like to toss in some pay channels into the mix. Everybody, except NTT and Qualcomm, realize that mobile DTV is not a service that many people will want to pay much for. And, there is nothing “degraded” about Mobile DTV; it’s a service with high-quality video and audio that exceeds what a small receiver can faithfully render. It’s easy to criticize something you know little to nothing about, if you don’t mind appearing foolish to those who do know.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 27, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    So the companies selling what recently said are the hottest TV models on the market appear foolish to you? Well, I guess we’ll just look foolish as we enjoy a higher-quality picture right now, without waiting for stations to begin broadcasting in MDTV. For $80, I’ll gladly play your “fool.” Nobody is paying for FLO? Last time I checked, the cost of entry was about $200, with extra fees for cable channels. Nobody’s tossing pay channels in for free. For the cost of a set of long-life rechargeable AA batteries, I will gladly play your “fool,” and advise you not to engage in name-calling — it hardly ever helps win an argument.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 27, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    P.S. — MDTV is a degraded standard compared to full HD ATSC. Here’s the link to the story about hot-selling tiny hand-held DTVs:

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 27, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Philly; I don’t need to read trade press about, this nor stuff like CNET; I’ve participated in development of the actual technology for more than 2 years; I make MDTV transmission gear, and I have consulted for a receiver maker. The cost of entry cost for FLO is $200, but fewer than 2000 of those units have been sold, and you forgot the $15 per month for just a few channels. (Many more mobile phones have the technology built in, but once people have to pay for access, they find other things to do with their phones.) The name of the game in mobile DTV is battery life, You for one have no grounds to talk about name calling. I didn’t attack you; I attacked your notions. If you and your notions are one and the same, that’s your cross to bear.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 27, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    I pity your wife.

robert russo says:

August 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

The word in the first paragraph — is “ensure” — not “insure” — unless the industry is going to contact All State for a policy 🙂

ali amirhooshmand says:

August 27, 2010 at 3:50 pm

This won’t happen unless broadcasters are willing to cut checks to the cell carriers. The cell carriers don’t want you listen to free FM or watch free TV because then you’re not making phone calls. The phone is the cell carrier’s key to your wallet and he won’t put his phone call revenue at risk without compensation from the benefitting broadcasters.

John Weller says:

August 27, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I agree that DTV receivers in cellphones is a good idea. I fully expect to own one at some point. But is act of Congress needed to make it happen? The reason for the 1962 Act ( which still is a bit controversial to this day) was there was no other way to open access to the new UHF channels. There are several other ways to access DTV channels; lack of DTV in phones doesn’t block anybody from the same services over cable, satellite and even OTA. As you say, broadcasters should to be able to negotiate their way onto cell phones and if the app makes as much sense as I think it does, it will be successful. But what if it isn’t? What if people simply don’t want it? I’m just not sure that there is any real justification for a Congressional mandate. This seems like a good opportunity to leave Congress out of it.

Gregg Palermo says:

August 27, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Someone said it, watching TV is something you do at rest, not on the move. So despite the way stationary TV evolved from stationary-but-also-mobile radio, it make good sense to wire TVs instead of continue with wireless madness. We have pretty much unwired the telephone, because people need it to be mobile. We should labor to “un-wireless” the TV signal, because people do NOT need it to be mobile.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 27, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Why don’t you just admit that you want to kill off free, OTA TV instead of making a false comparison? I’ll stand or sit still to watch my 3.5″ hand-held DTV (it’s even got a neat little kickstand) but I want it wireless, like TV always has been — and always will be in this country. The fact that these portable DTV sets are outselling any other form factor tells me that the viewers have spoken — and they want FREE hand-held TV. And guess what? ATSC gives it to them. If it didn’t work, millions of these little DTVs would not be flying off the shelves (see Ted’s CVS story, supra). And if consumers are smart, they will turn thumbs down on any scheme that charges them for broadcast TV they’ve always gotten for free. Harry’s idea is a good one — but it’s not really necessary for the vast majority of portable TV viewers. Today’s ATSC works fine, and it would work even better if stations invested in better transmission technology to fill the coverage gaps in the footprint.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm


    Watching TV as something you do at rest can be seen as saying, circa 1994 that talking on the phone is something you only do at home or the office. The younger folk live around their mobile devices, and they are even moving into the “post phone call” environment as texting takes over. Having mobile dtv on these devices is a “long tail opportunity.” But, folks who think that Mobile DTV will pay off handsomely in the first quarter you offer it might be disappointed. By the way, many PBS stations expect to be transmitting Mobile DTV in 1Q 2011, due to “stimulus funds.”

simon wilkie says:

August 27, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Killer idea! the marginal cost of ATSC mobile in a multi-format chip set is not nearly as costly as the telcos would want you to think. On the flip side, helping a free to air model vs. the telco arpu driven services is probably not one of the top things on their list of to do items. It would, however, put in place the free to air foundation necessary for the growth and development of mobile TV in general. If the telcos were more open minded they would realize that the additional user value of free programming and locally focused interactivity could create and develop an additional economic ecosystem based off of new applications and transactions utilizing advanced ad tech and geolocation/wireless presence oriented services. Another way of creating more leverage for telco android efforts vs. the march of the IPhone borg? The enemy of my enemy is my friend? Android handheld as a STB and/or ever present intelligent agent/concierge? Could there be a pony in there?

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 27, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    my informaton on the cost of adding the chips doesn’t come from telcos, but an actual maker of MDTV sets (I saw my first one late last year.) <$9.00 in production quantities, excluding IPR.

Hope Yen and Charles Babington says:

August 27, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Its a good idea. The phone itself, without ANY cell provider, would be able to tune in off-the-air RF from TV stations. Then for cell/PDA users, those services can be added. Don’t pay your bill? You lose everything, but the TV receiver works fine. I like the FM proposal as well. Costs will be worked out in the price of the phone. NO universal communications tax, thank you. We already are faced with a ‘tax’, spelled p-e-n-a-l-t-y for not buying health insurance a few years from now.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 27, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    sell that concept to cell carriers on your way back from cashing in on selling ice to the folks up north.

Kimberly Gari-Luff says:

August 27, 2010 at 7:19 pm

I think the idea is a bad one. After we’re done with that mandate, what next? Perhaps a mandate that all can openers also function as pickle forks? I read this and concluded that consumers must be engaged with TV — or at least that TV must be universally available. If it’s your business, your sustenance, your life, you won’t ever evidence a “take it or leave it” attitude. TV has somehow become a mandatory experience and that’s over the top for me. (I have two “mobile” TVs, an ancient Sony Watchman B&W and a middle-age Sanyo color. The only use I ever got from either of them was stationary use in my cabin when I happened to be working on a ship at sea. Never took them in the back yard, by the pool, to the park, or on a picnic. Once to the beach and couldn’t see a thing.)

    Jeff Baenen says:

    August 30, 2010 at 9:48 am

    JMIN, you raise a fair point — Should government mandates be encouraged? — but in this case government mandates go very much with the territory. Remember these wireless providers — and the manufacturers who do business with them — rely on use of govermnet-licensed airwaves (aka “the peoples’ airwaves” as so many posters to this site like to point out…). So the government would be well within its purview to mandate this. And no industry understands the weight of govermnet mandates more than TV broadcasters, who labor under the heaviest set of government mandates and restrictions of any sector within media and telecom.

Teri Green says:

August 27, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Since the human eye can’t preceive the difference between SD and HD in screens less than 30″ any talk of HD on a mobile phone is a crock. Yeah you could do it just fine but it’s a waste. Of course mobile DTVs are selling well now. There are NONE, or there weren’t any till recently. So people who want one are buying them. This tells nothing. It’s like when CDs first came out and all the vinyl albums were resold in CD format. That is what drove CD sales in the 90s. People replacing one format with another. I like the idea of putting TV in people’s hands though, especially OTA. As a person who lives 3 miles NW of Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago and can’t get ANY DTV signals ’cause of Chicago’s thick concentration of buildings, it’d do my heart good to see people finally realize how many people who can’t afford cable were disnenfranchised by the switch from analog to digital

Shirley Putnam says:

August 28, 2010 at 12:17 am

I don’t ever watch TV on a 1.5 inch screen, except when my daughter shows me a you tube cartoon of Foghorn Leghorn, bored to death on a farm somewhere in the deep South. No, I prefer my TV at homeon a 40 inch screen, feet up, enjoying refreshments. What next, Dick Tracy two way wrist TV’s?

Ellen Samrock says:

August 28, 2010 at 2:27 am

This past June’s FIFA World Cup in which millions of people, primarily men, signed up to watch ESPN’s mobile TV coverage of it proves the power and desirability of mobile DTV. We know consumers want it–and all the more so if it’s free. So, yes, it is worth the fight to get it into cellphones, even if it takes an act of Congress to accomplish it. The fight will be hard. Telco lobbyists have tremendous power in Washington. But this is broadcast television’s future and, by every indication, it is a future the next generation of consumers will gladly get on board for.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    If broadcasters are unable to or uninterested in reaching a deal with cell phone carriers, they are very much unlikely to benefit from Congressional action. Note how insurance companies and hospitals were in favor of health-care “reform”, yet both are now on a slow march to death. Congress might give you two in one area, and take five from you in another area. Invest in your future.

spike spike says:

August 28, 2010 at 2:09 pm

WOW…Willkie’s EVERYWHERE! Oh btw Kevin…I had a one-way Dick Tracy wrist TV which was great on live shots…until this “freezing” digital world came on the scene and rendered it useless along with my other cute little battery-powered portables that are now relics of progress. Oh, Willkie, are there radios that can pick up TV audio as during the good old analog days?

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 28, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    it’s not impossible, but I tend to look forward, not back, nor do I think Super 8 film or analog was “good” but they certainly are “old.” All you need to do is to process a 19.39 mb/second transport stream, for an audio stream that will max out at 448 kb/second.

spike spike says:

August 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm

OK…simple enough.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 29, 2010 at 1:13 am

    I am not a tekkie, but here’s a question: Isn’t there a data stream cache technology that could be incorporated into small portable receivers to make existing ATSC-HD more robust, more resistant to breakup without having to wait for ATSC mobile? And as for those who insist that HD doesn’t make a difference on a 4″ or 7″ display, I beg to differ. Viewers can even read tiny movie credits on these very sharp displays, and you’re not going to get as much clarity with the “SD plus” of the new mobile standard. Empirical observation calls into question those studies that are used to advance the fiction that true HD transmission doesn’t enhance the picture on small screens.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    August 30, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    there is no way to do this with the ATSC suite of standards. There is no market for doing this in receivers, since ATSC works as designed. It’s robust, and getting more robust is like getting more pregnant. Cacheing won’t work for live content. You are continually foolish here — there is actually a metric for “number of pixels per second of arc of the human visual system.” At commonly used distances, the ATSC M/H video actually presents more pixels per second of arc than does HD at a common viewing distance. You can beg to differ all you want. Using the word “empirical” in your last foolish sentence is wrong, since you have no way of seeing M/H content, nor do you have the ability to measure the number of pixels in a small display (most decimate the signal so they don’t show as many pixels.)

    Christina Perez says:

    August 30, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Any streamed digital content can be cached. The existing standard does limited cacheing as it is. You are right, I don’t know from “pixels per secnd of arc,” but I do know that name-calling is no way to win hearts and minds. What is with you? Please don’t answer, that’s a rhetorical question.

Ben Gao says:

August 31, 2010 at 3:45 pm

The TV networks would PAY for the chips, so it would cost the cellphone companies NOTHING, BUT the cellphone companies don’t want to do that – it makes too much sense to have just one transmitter on one frequency reach an unlimited number of receivers for FREE, when you could tie up multiple transmitters on multiple sites on multiple frequencies and CHARGE FOR EVERY MINUTE that you use their cell towers? That’s why it ain’t gonna happen. The fake liar lobby in DC has convinced the FCC and Congress that they MUST have 150MHz of bandwidth for PAY PER USE Broadband – I say BS. Broadcasting is the most efficient – cellphone broadband is terribly inefficient use of bandwidth, and the quality can’t be nearly as good as a straight single transmitter. Now if they could only figure out how to make a headset with an AM radio antenna/tuner in it to tie into your cellphone along with FM, then we have a winner!

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