JESSELL AT LARGE

Mobile DTV Is Dead, Long Live ATSC 3.0

Six years ago, a handful of broadcasters began talking up the idea of using excess digital spectrum to broadcast programming to mobile devices. In 2010 NBC and Fox joined several TV station groups to form the Mobile Content Venture. But here we sit in the waning days of 2013 and mobile DTV is no closer to fulfilling its early promise than it was in 2010. It’s a lost cause. Broadcasters now need to throw their support behind ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard being developed that promises to deliver a signal so rugged that it can be picked up on mobile devices without the deal-breaking external antennas.

A few weeks ago, TVNewsCheck had a scoop of sorts. I say “of sorts” because although we had the story before everybody else, nobody really cared about it. When the official announcement came a few days after our posting, it landed with a thud. Only a few trades even bothered to post the press release.

So what was this big news? Audiovox was introducing a new gizmo for receiving the Dyle mobile DTV service. An alternative to the clumsy dongles that plug into smartphones or tablets, the Audiovox is a little box with whip antenna that receives the mobile DTV signal off air and then retransmits it via WiFi to devices in the room.

Our tech reporter and OTA aficionado Andrew Dodson reviewed it and gave it a C+.

But the point is, nobody cared. Nobody cared about the product because nobody cares about mobile DTV anymore.

It’s too bad.

Things got off to a great start.

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Six years ago, a handful of broadcasters led by Ion CEO Brandon Burgess of all people began talking up the idea of using excess digital spectrum to broadcast programming to mobile devices.

With the complementary mobile signal, broadcasters would become ubiquitous again, reaching all screens in all places, even those moving down the highway at 75 miles per hour.

Working together as never before, the broadcasters and technology companies developed — and in two years standardized — a system for mobile broadcasting. The high point came in April 2010, when NBC and Fox joined several major TV station groups in forming the Mobile Content Venture. It would further develop the service and bring it to market.

But here we sit in the waning days of 2013 and mobile DTV is not much closer to fulfilling its early promise than it was in 2010. It’s a lost cause.

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Mobile DTV is now like one of those zombies you see everywhere on TV and the movies these days. It’s dead, but it doesn’t have the decency to roll over and die.

It’s not like broadcasters didn’t give it a good try. Today, about 120 stations in markets covering 57% of the U.S. are said to be broadcasting mobile DTV, even though virtually no one is tuning in on a regular basis. That represents an investment in transmission gear alone running into many millions of dollars.

The principal reason is the broadcasters were never able to convince the smartphone and tablet makers and their wireless partners to include tuners in their devices.

Who could blame them? The system requires an external antenna of some kind.

That left mobile DTV proponents to offer dongles and work-arounds like the Audiovox. In 2012, they actually managed to persuade Samsung and T-Mobile to offer a mobile DTV-equipped phone. But it was a bust and is no longer available.

The wireless carriers had no incentive to help. Actually, they had great disincentive. They make money by getting people to use their spectrum, not broadcasters’.

Although NBC and Fox came on board in 2010 and assumed the leadership for the project, they were never totally committed. As I wrote last spring, if the two networks really believed in it, top executives would be out front on it, not business development types.

And CBS and ABC never did come around. Their continuing refusal to participate says it all.

That the industry split into two camps certainly didn’t help. When NBC and Fox and the major, old-line groups coalesced into the Mobile Content Venture, I guess they figured that the rest of the industry would fall into line and dumbly follow in secondary roles.

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They didn’t. Instead, they formed their own consortium with its own ideas, the Mobile500. The schism only served to confuse the marketplace and retard efforts to build the larger ecosystem for the service.

The Mobile500 still exists, but it hasn’t been heard from in a while. In May, it let go of its executive director, John Lawson, and brought on Rob Hubbard, president of Hubbard Broadcasting, who said not to expect any news from the group until after the new year.

Also missing in action is the Open Mobile Video Coalition, the group that got the ball rolling on mobile DTV and then stuck around to promote the service. It was absorbed into the NAB last December and now exists primarily as a static website. It has not put out a press release since March.

Even as I cheered on the mobile DTV efforts, I always suspected the technology was not up to the task. Those suspicions were reinforced by whispers among disenchanted broadcast engineers who were supposed to get the thing to work.

I recall sitting in a coffee shop in Manhattan with Dodson earlier this year. He had his smartphone and Dyle dongle and we tried to tune in the New York Dyle signals. It was great if you didn’t mind watching TV one frozen frame at a time.

It’s time for the industry to drive a stake into mobile DTV (or shoot it with a silver bullet or whatever it is you do with the walking dead) and move on.

Where?

To ATSC 3.0.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee has begun work on a new broadcast standard that promises, among other things, to deliver many more bits per TV channel and, perhaps more important, a signal so rugged that it can be picked up on mobile devices without the deal-breaking external antennas.

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All broadcasters need be involved in the standards-setting process. They can’t afford to get it wrong this time. They need to be able to generate a single signal that lights up anything with a screen.

By the way, the single-signal approach eliminates a host of thorny copyright issues that have hampered their current two-signal approach — one for the home and one for mobile.

Some broadcasters may be sticking to the fiction of mobile DTV because they see it as an argument against government’s efforts to take away broadcast spectrum and put it in the hands of wireless carriers

It’s unnecessary. ATSC 3.0 and its potential is a far more powerful argument for preserving and protecting the TV band than mobile DTV ever could be.

ATSC 3.0 is still a few years off. In the meantime, to insure that they are where the people are, broadcasters need to follow through with plans to stream their signals so that they can be accessed by mobile devices through the broadband networks.

If you want to know what that might look like, read Dodson’s blog on the Aereo service. Say what you will about the legality of what it is doing, its service works.

And if you happen to be in a market with an ABC O&O, you can download the WatchABC app and tune in today.

There are multiple business models for streaming. ABC, NBC and Fox seem to have chosen TV Everywhere, which involves cable operators as partners. CBS has yet to tip its hand.

I wish I could claim a scoop today with this column saying mobile DTV is dead. Anybody paying attention already knew that.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (12)

Leave a Reply

Trudy Rubin says:

October 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm

ABC O&O stream is not available to everyone in their market. Just pay video subscribers.

Britney Williams says:

October 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm

You are correct that getting the cell phone people on board will not happen. But shouldn’t we be putting our efforts into getting a streaming version of our signals delivered to anyone who has a residence in our DMA? The geo-fencing technology works. We need some help with copyright issues from Hollywood, but if we stream their content (and their commercials) they either get a larger license fee or their barter spots are seen by more people in our markets. The ATSC 3.0 is a great idea and a good long-term solution but we shouldn’t consider it the “silver bullet.” Streaming could be done today and reach every device that is connected to the internet. Seems like a great place to start!

    Wagner Pereira says:

    October 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Heck, we cannot even get all show rights setup for On Demand. How do you expect to get them setup for streaming? Mike and Molly is not on CBS’s On Demand offerings. Most people in America have not seen last Season’s Finale, which was cancelled the day of because of the Oklahoma Tornado that afternoon and the subject matter in the show of a Tornado hitting Chicago. CBS aired it several weeks later, not even in the normal time slot, but in the middle of M&M reruns on Thursday Night with no real promotion. As thus, most M&M Fans have never seen it. Now we have “the new” M&M starting in November with reruns of BBT on Monday now (and some even worse show cancelled after 2 airings) and yet most have never seen last season’s M&M yet! /rant off

    Keith ONeal says:

    October 25, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    I’m not an M&M fan (never was), but I was expecting M&M to return during Premiere Week, like most other shows did. Didn’t happen; don’t know the reason. Now that M&M is returning next month, why is CBS calling it “The New Mike & Molly?”

    Wagner Pereira says:

    October 26, 2013 at 2:02 am

    They have a number of aging shows that are still holding good numbers. Had lowest number of program slots to fill of any network (2 :30s on Monday, 1 ;60 on Monday and 2:30s on Thursday) 5 shows total. They needed to try and break new hits. Tried the new shows to hopefully find something that worked, holding back Mike and Molly as reserve for whatever crashed. They have to try and find some other cornerstone hits as Bang and especially Men age. Personally, I am not a fan of M&M and Moms – writing nowhere as good as Men and Bang, but Chuck Lorre has CBS over a barrel to green light his new shows – but proving not enough good writers to go around.

Wagner Pereira says:

October 25, 2013 at 3:57 pm

For all the negative posts about Sinclair by the wannabes here, you have to again give them props for pointing out how fragile 8VSB was and what that would mean in terms of reception. They tried as much as they could to get it corrected before everyone went ALL in. Even with more error correction in Mobile DTV, the signal was just too hard and cumbersome to pick up in all enviroments (as Harry noted – though I wonder if the Times Square location with better Manhattan coverage would have worked better). Hopefully all members will listen to all sides in the future and put personal feelings aside as to who raises issues. And no, I do not work for Sinclair!

steve weiser says:

October 25, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Mobile DTV never had a chance to be anything other than a short-lived fad. I said so in my book published in 2012. Assign it to the scrapheap of history, or make it a museum piece. It will interesting to see if ATSC 3.0 will fare any better. Remember, the phone and tablet makers are continually innovating in the area of television delivery. It may be that, by the time ATSC 3.0 is fully developed and ready for implementation, the “Broadcast TV Everywhere” portion may be just as unnecessary as Mobile DTV is (and was). We’ll see. I’m interested to know.

Ellen Samrock says:

October 25, 2013 at 7:40 pm

ATSC 3.0 is also more spectrally efficient so whatever spectrum is lost in the auction (assuming there is one) and repack can be compensated with this new standard. Plus ATSC 3.0 is the basis for Sinclair and Grey seeking a flexible use waiver. So there’s a lot to get excited about with this new standard as opposed to mobile DTV. Let’s hope as broadcasters migrate to 3.0 that consumers, who are now discovering over-the-air viewing, will come along with us and not give up on OTA television.

Dave Chumley says:

October 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

The ATSC has no expertise in analysis and no research lab. Members come to meetings to talk and vote. So they issued RFP for V3.0. So how will they evaluate the responses?. Besides, it’s a process closed to those of who are not paying members.
This is not a formula for success.

Thomas Herwitz says:

October 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Fer the cry-eye, why can’t the NAB see that the only smart short-term solution to creating Mobile (Local) DTV is to cut a deal with Aereo? Whether we need ATSC 3.0 is a long-term question, but really – you could have nationwide Mobile DTV in WiFi hotspots and on smartphones before the 4th of July 2014 if the NAB would just stop trying to kill the one entrant that has proven technology ready to deploy *today.* Seriously doubt we’ll see that, though…makes too much sense.

Christina Perez says:

October 30, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I still watch broadcast TV on a standard ATSC digital hand-held TV — that is, when a military contractor I suspect of getting payoffs from pay TV interests isn’t throwing up jamming/interference.

Janice Gallick says:

September 30, 2014 at 6:03 pm

it’s October, and NOBODY is doing mobile dtv,


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