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.
Mobile DTV Is Dead, Long Live ATSC 3.0
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.