DVB-H finally gets formal adoption by the EC

It's official, so now the process can finally begin for a national licensing system for terrestrial broadcasters that exclusively service mobile devices.

This time, it actually happened: The European Commission has formally decided that DVB-H is Europe's official national standard for digital mobile broadcast television. This affects how broadcast and transmission licenses are handled throughout Europe, where viable alternatives to DVB-H now have a significantly diminished chance to compete.

EC Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding
Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for the Information Society and Media.

"For Mobile TV to take off in Europe, there must first be certainty about the technology," stated European Commissioner Viviane Reding, the global champion of the standard, in a formal statement from Brussels this morning: "This is why I am glad that with today's decision, taken by the Commission in close coordination with the Member States and the European Parliament, the EU endorsed DVB-H as the preferred technology for terrestrial mobile broadcasting...The next steps for implementing the EU strategy on mobile broadcasting will include guidance on the authorization regimes as well as the promotion of rights management systems based, as is DVB-H, on open standards."

This news had to be read carefully, since the EC has actually declared the matter settled before, on multiple occasions. This time, it appears the Commission has come to a complete decision, although the formal record of a vote has yet to be revealed, if indeed there was an actual vote on the matter.

Comm. Reding's goal has been to avoid a situation where the various EU member states' leading telecom carriers each declare its own unique preference for a mobile broadcast standard. With many member states no larger geographically than some of the smaller US states, it's important that signals don't collide with one another or cancel each other out should they transcend member states' boundaries; and it's equally important that viewers' mobile TVs continue to work from one state to the other.

But getting everyone to sign on the dotted line has been an exercise in herding cats, from Reding's point of view. Last January, during an appearance on a panel at CES 2008, without any reservation or evasiveness whatsoever, she told attendees that sometimes it takes a sheep dog's attitude to get everyone in line, and that she doesn't hesitate to shove when shoving is necessary.

Responding to an argument from American industry leaders that markets may do a better job of deciding industry standards than governments, Comm. Reding at one point declared, "I think that markets should solve some problems. But sometimes the markets are very slow...So that's when I decide, and that's it...I decided to take the thing in hand...We know where we want to go, and it's time to go there."

While manufacturers such as Nokia, Microsoft, and Motorola all see possibilities for DVB-H service in the US, only three cities currently participate in trial runs, according to the DVB Project Office: New York City, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas.

Where a government agency can be a greater benefit to a standard than a more Darwinian, market-driven approach to standards -- as evidenced by the blue-laser format war -- is to ensure that the patents necessary to maintain that standard be available equally and openly. It was intellectual property more than anything else that divided the HD DVD and Blu-ray camps; and in a speech last week in Budapest, Comm. Reding expressed her opinion that the EC can avert such a market debacle by maintaining a strong hold on the IP.

"For the main DVB-H patent holders, be they manufacturers or not, time has now come to finalize an agreement over the licensing terms and conditions and the constitution of the patent pool," stated Reding. "Two elements here are important: abiding to the FRAND -- fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory -- principles and making sure that the IPR costs are reasonable, thus enabling the wide adoption of the technology for the benefit of consumers. I expect from the main players concerned and the patent pool facilitator to make these licensing terms public in the very next few weeks."

Full DVB-H service has only been made available in Italy thus far, though according to the EC this morning, commercial trials are now proceeding at full tilt in France, Switzerland, Spain, Austria, and Finland, with "beta tests" of a sort now getting under way in ten more countries.

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