European mobile broadcast standard still up in the air

In an outcome that can best be described as quintessentially European, both sides in the debate over adopting DVB-H as Europe's official standard for digital mobile broadcasting have claimed full victory.

News of the outcome of today's vote of EU member states on, among other matters, the adoption of DVB-H as the one and only digital broadcast standard was so bipolar in nature that Reuters today reported the measure was adopted, while the Associated Press reported it was rejected.

In fact, neither may be true. A linguistic examination of today's statement from European Commissioner for the Information Society and Media Viviane Reding, which requires parsing at a level of granularity that would make former US presidents envious, revealed there may not have actually been a vote on the matter.

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"European mobile TV is a step closer to success following today's endorsement by the [European] Council of the Commission's strategy for creating economies of scale in this important sector," reads Comm. Reding's statement this afternoon, Brussels time.

What the Council of 27 member states has apparently adopted -- in principle only -- is a broad plan called the "European initiative on an all-inclusive digital society." The measure calls for an expansion of digital communications services such as broadband Internet to those who may not be able to afford it, or who may not be able to access it normally due to disability.

Somewhere buried in that broad plan is the adoption of DVB-H, a technology for mobile broadcast television services championed by Nokia, which was joined last year by Microsoft. DVB-H was created with the express purpose of some day being deployed as Europe's sole standard.

"This proposal has already led to an irreversible trend in the market towards DVB-H as the preferred European standard for mobile TV," Reding's office stated today, "while other parts of the world are also backing this open standard of the DVB family. Following the Council meeting today, DVB-H will be published by the Commission in the list of official EU standards. As a result, all EU Member States will have to support and encourage the use of DVB-H for the launch of mobile TV services, thus avoiding market fragmentation and allowing economies of scale and accordingly affordable services and devices."

It is Reding's use of the word "irreversible" that led skeptics to realize that the trend was not, in fact, irreversible: that the word was being used as a characterization of one side's opinion of what happens from here.

As it turned out, the ministers who would have cast their vote today, including UK telecom minister Stephen Timms, rushed to tell Dow Jones this afternoon, US time, that all Council members agreed upon thus far was for DVB-H to be considered a standard, for it to be encouraged for adoption as a continental standard, but not as the sole one.

Today's discovery of Europe's indecision on the matter comes despite reports from last July -- reports that were apparently released in order to pave the way for the "irreversible" outcome -- that DVB-H had already been selected by the EC. Not everyone was immune from falling victim to those reports; BetaNews even passed them on.

Competing with DVB-H, particularly in Asia and in some parts of the US where digital mobile broadcasting is being tested, is MediaFLO, a competing standard championed by Qualcomm and being tested here by Verizon and AT&T. The ISDB-T standard is particularly strong in its native Japan; whereas in the country where mobile digital TV is believed to have taken root most strongly, South Korea, its own DMB standard has a firm grip, although it's being challenged by other home-grown alternatives.

With the new standards in this field growing more and more competitive, some ministers told the AP they would prefer to adopt an official stance of technology neutrality, letting the market decide which should be the more prevalent approach. The ministers apparently borrowed language from previously adopted EC positions on the related topic of IPTV set-top box decoders, for which technology neutrality had already been recommended and adopted. No particularly Europe-oriented STB standard has ever been devised.

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