DTV broadcasters could make another transition to mobile next year

With surprising speed, a coalition of US broadcasting interests and Korean manufacturers has completed a "release candidate" for a mobile digital TV standard that could displace everything else tried in America thus far.

At this time last year, the buzz heading into CES was about which of the two competing cell phone video standards would make its way to American handsets first. The contenders being discussed were: MediaFLO, a delivery mechanism championed by Qualcomm, one of the world's major suppliers of handset equipment; and DVB-H, already decreed by law to be Europe's national mobile TV standard.

As an alternate, just in case things didn't pan out, was an alternative: Broadcasters who were already converting to the ATSC digital standard for the February 2009 transition away from analog TV, may consider tacking on a side-standard that would enable them to reach smaller devices with specialized programming. Now, with development of MediaFLO programming at a standstill, coupled with the fact that European engineers are actually turning away from the standard the law told them they must adopt, that alternative could end up the leading candidate for US mobile TV at CES 2009.

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That new candidate would merge the engineering concepts of the current ATSC signal with technologies that have already been deployed in South Korea -- arguably the country where mobile TV is most successful. Last year, Samsung and LG signed on to an effort to build what's now being called the ATSC M/H (mobile and handheld) standard.

This morning, the Advanced Television Systems Committee made official what had already been leaked to reporters last week: A candidate standard championed by the coalition LG and Samsung have forged, has been officially approved. With that, real work on engineering the first wave of handheld TV devices could begin as soon as the second half of 2009.

What would those devices be? Although manufacturers still have dreams of selling some devices separately (thus the "H" in the standard's name), it's already very clear that if Americans want mobile TV, they want it on the devices they already own: namely, the handsets they're already using for their phones and mobile e-mail. That's a sensible choice; with certain notable exceptions, part of the "coolness factor" for many mobile users is the ability to have everything in one place.

And would it just be television made smaller? Not exactly. Though there would be live, scheduled programming -- quite possibly what's already being broadcast on ATSC -- the Open Mobile Video Coalition is professing the need for pairing those signals with on-demand programming such as news, sports, weather, and traffic updates. Certainly, local broadcasters could be the best candidates to provide this information, as it would not only extend their brand recognition among viewers but open up new advertising channels for them.

That would certainly beat the standard fare of music videos, movie trailers, and homemade possums-chasing-squirrels features presently offered to mobile phone users...without much success. A Nielsen survey published last month (PDF available here) showed that, in the third quarter of this year, while the average American spends over 142 hours per month watching TV in her own household, that same person only spends three-and-a-half hours per month watching mobile video on her handset device, when she has one available to her.

The OMVC is gambling that the low demand for mobile TV in the US is not because Americans are rejecting the concept as a whole, but rather because it's not offering them anything they can use. We'll be getting our first glimpse of whether the Coalition's theory is correct, in a little over one month's time.

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