U.S. TV body approves mobile standard

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The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), which oversees TV standards for the U.S., said Friday it has approved a standard for mobile digital broadcasts.

The ATSC Mobile DTV Standard will allow local TV stations to broadcast to mobile devices on the frequencies they already have. Consumers may be able to pick up the broadcasts on laptops, handheld TVs and in-vehicle entertainment systems as well as mobile phones.

Mobile TV has been more successful in some other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, than in the U.S. Handset makers Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics were promoting two different specifications to the ATSC until last May, when they joined forces on a unified proposal.

Consumers can already watch TV broadcasts on some Verizon Wireless and AT&T handsets, via the FLO TV network backed by Qualcomm. However, the FLO service is paid and is focused on national rather than local offerings.

ATSC Mobile DTV is carried alongside the regular over-the-air DTV broadcasts that U.S. stations have been delivering exclusively since analog TV was discontinued across the country in June. It uses a system called Vestigial Side Band modulation, with an IP (Internet Protocol) transport system, according to the ATSC. The technology can send H.264 video and HE AAC v2 (High-Efficiency Advanced Audio Coding, Version 2) audio. It can support interactive services, subscription-based TV and downloading of content for later viewing, the group said.

LG will unveil its first ATSC Mobile DTV device, a portable DVD player with built-in TV, at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, said John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG Electronics USA. The device will probably cost less than US$250. He believes the addition of TV to a phone would increase the cost by only a small amount.

Unlike with some standards, there is already an ecosystem in place for ATSC Mobile DTV, with 30 broadcasters already using it, Taylor said. “This is ready for deployment now,” he said.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition has said a total of 70 broadcasters in the U.S. have announced plans to use the technology by the end of this year. It costs less than $100,000 for a broadcaster to add the mobile capability, Taylor said.

However, a lot of pieces have to come together for the new technology to succeed, according to analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis. For one thing, the three largest U.S. carriers may not want to embrace a technology that could compete with their existing mobile TV products. While AT&T and Verizon sell FLO TV, Sprint offers a TV service that goes over its 3G network. Because mobile operators sell most of the handsets in the U.S., and in many cases dictate what’s in those devices, their support will be key, Greengart said.

Taylor said LG has had discussions with its carrier partners but none has publicly agreed to use ATSC Mobile DTV.

Broadcasters may have their own qualms about investing in the technology without a guarantee that it will help them make money, Greengart said. There may be a chicken-and-egg problem between availability of handsets and of broadcasting stations, with each side hesitating to move first, he said. However, with growing competition from cable channels, Web sites and other sources of video, mobile over-the-air TV could be an opportunity for local broadcasters to grab back some viewers, he said.

Content rights may also be an issue, noted Bill Stone, president of FLO TV.

“Many pieces of content today have mobile rights associated with them,” Stone said. For example, if a carrier has the right to show a local sports event through a national relationship with the league, a local broadcaster may not be allowed to show it to phones even though it has the traditional TV rights, he said.

Over the five-year process of building its network, which now can reach about 200 million people in the top 100 U.S. cities, FLO TV has learned it takes a lot of work to get the coverage, devices and content in place for a successful service, Stone said. Though FLO TV doesn’t disclose subscriber numbers, Stone said the average viewer on Verizon and AT&T watches the service more than 30 minutes per day.

However, the ATSC standard may help to solve the biggest barrier FLO TV faces: Most consumers don’t know they can watch TV on a phone, Stone said.

“If there’s a way for us to partner and work together to help build that awareness, that’s a positive,” Stone said.

Updated on October 19 to add more information about upcoming devices as well as vendor and analyst comments.

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