It’s looking like it will be at least another year before TV stations will be able to offer over-the-air programming to smartphones, tablets and netbooks. Much progress has been made, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. But broadcasters don’t have all the time in the world. They are in a competition with broadband. If broadcasters drag this out too long, the broadband carriers will come up with their own “broadcast” solution and broadcasters won’t get their chance.
Patience. Patience. Patience.
By this time, coming home from dinner in Manhattan by train as I did Wednesday night, I figured I would have been able to watch some primetime shows — maybe even an inning or two of the World Series — on my smartphone, all courtesy of my local broadcasters.
But mobile DTV has been a long time coming and from what I can gather it will be another long year, before I and other folks will be able to shop for smartphones, tablets and netbooks with the capability to receive broadcast TV.
It’s been four years since broadcasters organized the Open Mobile Video Coalition with the immediate goal of developing a standard that would permit TV stations to broadcast programming to small, mobile devices, even in moving cars.
OMVC accomplished that in fairly short order. Competing systems were distilled into one, and the Advanced Television Systems Committee promptly gave its blessing.
But nothing has been short or quick since.
What I thought would accelerate mobile DTV — the formation of the Mobile Content Venture in April 2010 — has actually slowed it down. Comprising NBC, Fox, Ion Media and nine leading TV stations groups, the MVC had the kind of weight needed to get mobile DTV rolling. Or so I thought.
Instead, it made a couple of strategic decisions that delay things.
First, it decided that mobile DTV had to have conditional access, a whole new layer of complexity that had not been part of anybody’s plan before. You had to have a system for encrypting the signals and a back channel for authorizing users.
With such a system, the thinking went, broadcasters would know exactly who was watching what and they could use that information in selling advertising. Just as important, conditional access would allow broadcasters to charge for programming. Some programming would be free, but it all didn’t have to be free.
Who can argue with that? It all makes sense, but it all takes time.
From what they’re telling me, the system is now in place and the OMVC will soon have a signal on the air in Washington that will allow manufacturers to test their devices.
Another decision was to lose the whip antennas, which we saw on all the first-generation receivers and which drew a lot of criticism and a bit of ridicule from the gadgeteers. Erik Moreno and Salil Dalvi, co-GMs of MCV, realized that consumers were not going to monkey around with tiny and fragile telescoping antennas.
In speech at the B&C conference this week, Moreno said he and Dalvi worked hard to lose the whip antenna and have made progress. “We are currently prototyping a device that will use a very clever approach to the vexing problem,” he said.
Now, in keeping with the secrecy that has surrounded so much of the MCV’s work, Moreno wouldn’t give details. But, he said, if it works, “all broadcasters, including those broadcasters on high VHF frequencies, will be in a position to make their content available to the consumer without a whip antenna.”
That would be huge, particularly if the “clever approach” can actually be used in smartphones.
The formation of the MCV also caused a schism in the industry. Those broadcasters not invited into MCV felt rejected and angry. And they were not inclined to sit around and allow MCV to dictate what mobile DTV would be and their role in the providing the service. So they formed their own consortium called the Mobile500 to pursue the business on their own terms.
As I look around on Oct. 21, 2011, I see a lot of missing pieces and lots more for MCV and the Mobile500 to do:
- They have to clear copyright for all the broadcast programming they want to offer on the service.
- They have to convince consumer electronics manufacturers that mobile DTV is worth building into a variety of products. (Because of the long lead time involved in bringing devices to market, this may be the most urgent job.)
- They have to somehow convince the major carriers to OK the inclusion of mobile DTV chips into the smartphones that they subsidize.
- They have to overcome lingering doubts about the broadcasters’ big-stick, one signal infrastructure and whether it can deliver good, continuous signals to devices on the move.
- They have to settle on a marketing plan that describes what the service will look like and how it will be distributed.
- They have to make peace and merge, a process that also involves always touchy network-affiliate relations.
- They have to pull CBS and ABC into the business.
“Make no mistake,” Moreno said, “a thriving and viable mobile television business is only assured when all networks and all networks and their affiliates participate.”
I don’t know exactly how much progress has been made on any of these fronts. As I said, the MCV has been rather stingy with information. But I have heard that ABC has been actively exploring jumping into mobile DTV, holding meetings with members of the MCV and Mobile500.
And CBS’s decision to launch a multicast news channel in New York means that its long-held resistance to using its digital channels for services other than the purest kind of HDTV has softened.
And there has certainly been progress on other fronts. The OMVC has published the guidelines that manufacturers need to build devices with mobile DTV receive capability, and broadcasters have made good on their promise to install the gear needed to broadcast the mobile DTV signal.
The MCV says its members now represent 70 stations in 32 markets covering 51% of the population on the air with mobile. Add in the Mobile500 pioneers, says OMVC’s Anne Schelle, and the numbers swell to more than 100 stations in over 40 markets.
This business will not be lost on the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.
Moreno is touchy on the subject of time. He will not be coaxed into revealing when the service will be launched other than to say that it will be sometime next year. “Have faith,” he told me on the phone last night. “The stations are lit. The network is available. The devices are coming.”
Moreno’s reticence is probably smart. There is no sense creating artificial deadlines for yourself, especially when so much is riding on putting this service together. Broadcasters will get only one shot at this. If they present this to the American public and it’s a bust, they will not get a second chance. Wireless carriers will start carving up broadcast spectrum like a Thanksgiving Butterball.
Sometimes delay works in your favor. When this process began, nobody with the exception of Steve Jobs had envisioned the tablet as a popular mobile consumer device. But now that it’s here, it’s looking like the platform that could make mobile DTV go.
“Attractive screen sizes, long-lived batteries and powerful processors make tablets the optimal media consumption devices with video as the killer app,” Moreno said in his speech. “The proliferation of tablets is the proverbial kerosene to an already raging fire of demand for mobile data.”
But broadcasters don’t have all the time in the world. They are in a competition with broadband, which talks of investing billions in infrastructure, while broadcasters talk millions. If broadcasters drag this out too long, the broadband carriers will come up with their own “broadcast” solution. Broadcasters won’t get their chance.
So, when will the service be up and running with a good variety of compatible devices in the stores?
Let us now say Christmas 2012 and hope for Labor Day.
Patience. Patience. Patience.