Samsung and LG join forces to combat Qualcomm, DVB-H on US mobile DTV

An agreement between Korea's principal developers of mobile digital television technology has paved the way for a direct agreement between them and the US' leading broadcasters for a standard to compete with cell phones and satellite.

Next February, American analog television stations will cease transmission, as their broadcasters complete their move to an all-digital standard on new frequencies, using the ATSC DTV broadcasting standard. So there will already be one over-the-airwaves standard for US broadcasters, and very likely Canadian. This has left many wondering, does there really need to be a second or even third standard exclusively for mobile digital television?

Perhaps realizing their respective interests would be better served if they joined their marketing efforts toward what's essentially the same goal, Korean electronics firms LG Electronics and Samsung announced this morning a wide-ranging agreement that would coalesce their MPH and A-VSB mobile broadcasting techniques -- which rely on the existing ATSC platform -- into a single approach to mobile DTV in North America.

As it turns out, a pact of the nation's major content providers called the Open Mobile Video Coalition is working to engineer a new broadcasting market based around mobile DTV content. In such a market, major commercial television station owners such as Tribune, Hearst-Argyle, Belo, and Lin Broadcasting would be stakeholders, thus ensuring that competing approaches to so-called "mobile content" -- potentially from cable, satellite, or broadband providers -- don't end up shutting them out.

The unspoken threat on the horizon for Coalition members comes from the fact that DTV content could conceivably be "mobile" in name only. Theoretically, what's to keep HBO from launching a nationwide "mobile" DTV channel, in any resolution it wants, using a system such as Qualcomm's MediaFLO, subsidized and supported by a major carrier such as AT&T or Verizon Wireless?

OMVC will also choose the single DTV standard it will use for its service of choice, which is why LG and Samsung decided that their chances of winning were greater if they pooled their bets. But there is no guarantee that whatever OMVC standard decides to adopt will ever actually be implemented, as terrestrial stations are already busy making up for their tremendous investment in the first DTV transition.

The LG / Samsung deal does remove one obstacle, however: by pairing two slightly different approaches to a technological problem while setting aside their respective egos, in a way which Blu-ray's and HD DVD's proponents failed to do. In a joint signing ceremony early today, Korea time, representatives from both companies said they will jointly demonstrate their approach to ATSC broadcasting for the OMVC, which says it will choose one technology sometime next year.

ATSC is probably the odds-on favorite for that choice at this point, given that MediaFLO has the backing of the telcos whom OMVC's member stations would be competing against, and DVB-H -- now the official standard of the European Union -- has the backing of device manufacturers such as Motorola and Nokia, and software manufacturers such as Microsoft -- companies with strong ties to the set-top box industry, and thus by association to the cable TV industry, another group which the OMVC shuns.

LG had announced what it had called its "sixth-generation chipset" for mobile digital TV reception in April of last year, and gave public demonstrations of its MPH standard at CES 2008 last January. Meanwhile, Samsung made a similar demo of A-VSB at the very same venue, using modified Samsung phones. At the same time, Samsung has been busy embedding ATSC receivers in its HDTV sets since 2005, and has ever since made inferences that even its biggest, bulkiest big-screens may be capable of receiving A-VSB broadcasts as well, despite their relative immobility.

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