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Verizon vs. broadcasters: Deciding the fate of mobile TV

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam sees his company's LTE wireless network as the answer for distributing live TV to mobile users. But TV broadcasters may have something to say about that.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam sits down for a chat with NAB president Gordon Smith at the 2013 NAB Show in Las Vegas. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Las Vegas -- Wireless giant Verizon is on a collision course with TV broadcasters as they each see big opportunities in broadcasting live events to mobile devices.

During a question-and-answer session at the broadcast industry's annual trade show here Tuesday Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam said his company's new broadcast video service is not meant to compete with traditional broadcast TV. In January, Verizon said it planned to offer a broadcast TV service over its LTE wireless network. And the company has said that it plans to broadcast live events such as the 2014 Super Bowl over this service.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of people will still be at home watching the game at home in front of their big 4K TV," he said.

But McAdam made it clear that Verizon is looking to fill a need in the market.

"Last night I was out at meetings and would have loved to tune in to the (NCAA college basketball) national championship," he said. "But I couldn't do it. Going forward you'll be able to do that."

While McAdam says the service won't compete with in-home broadcast TV service. He said nothing about whether the service will compete with broadcasters' own plans to offer a similar broadcast TV service to mobile users via smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices.

Broadcasters also see mobile TV as an opportunity

TV broadcasters have slowly been rolling out their own mobile TV solution. In fact, on Monday during his opening keynote address NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith urged his network and affiliate members to look toward mobile as part of their future strategies. And he highlighted the benefits of the broadcast model over the wireless industry's networks for delivering video

"Our one-to-many architecture allows us to deliver a product where there is no streaming necessary, so there's no signal congestion," Smith said during the opening keynote at NAB on Monday.

Existing mobile DTV broadcast technology and service is already available with more than 25 broadcasters offering the service. It offers smartphone and tablet users the ability to watch live TV from local broadcast stations on their phones. The service is free of charge and does not eat into a user's wireless data plan since it's broadcast over the existing TV broadcast networks.

The broadcast industry is also working on a new standard called ATSC 3.0 that will become the next generation of broadcast TV technology and will include the ability to make mobile broadcasting even more robust. For example, it will offer TV stations the ability to add additional services and content to their TV broadcast stream. The standard is still in development and it's likely to take years before the technology is available in devices.

The benefit broadcasters have in delivering live TV events to mobile devices is in the way the networks are built.

A broadcast network transmits the event once and viewers are able to "tune" into their signal to view the stream. By contrast, wireless cell phone networks, even the LTE network that Verizon offers, transmits signals in a one-to-one fashion.

For big events like the NCAA basketball finals or the Super Bowl, a broadcast model is much more efficient and does not require the same amount of bandwidth as having tens of millions of people trying to make one-to-one connections to view the same video stream.

Even though Verizon has said it plans to use multicast technology in building its broadcast video service to overcome this challenge, the all-IP architecture of the LTE network is still limited in terms of capacity compared to the broadcast TV model.

Erik Moreno, senior vice president of corporate development for Fox Networks Group, answers questions during a panel at the NAB Show 2013.

Erik Moreno, senior vice president of corporate development for Fox Networks Group, said during a panel discussion at the NAB show Tuesday that even though Verizon may try to build a broadcast-like capability into their LTE service to be able to offer video viewers big events, the reality is that they won't be able to do it as well as broadcasters.

"Sporting events are ideally suited for broadcast," said Moreno. "I don't care how hard you try or what kind of network you have, you cannot replicate the cost of a broadcast network over an IP network."

He explained that no matter how Verizon builds its broadcast-like service, it will still be constrained.

Hurdles remain for broadcasters

While the broadcast industry sees its future in mobile, the reality is that the industry still has some significant hurdles to overcome in making that ambition a reality. For one, the current mobile DTV technology that's available requires special receivers on devices. This means that smartphones and tablets must be outfitted with receivers and not very cool looking antenna to accept the signal. MetroPCS is already selling a line of devices that offers the mobile DTV signals and there are companies making dongles that attach to tablets, such as the iPhone.

Getting the technology built into devices will take time. And it will take cooperation from wireless carriers. Moreno says this is coming. He is confident that once enough broadcasters start offering their signal over the air to mobile devices that wireless carriers will see the benefit and include the technology in their phones.

But this leads to the next major hurdle for the broadcast industry. The broadcast business is highly fragmented and distributed throughout the country. In order to make the mobile DTV attractive to consumers, the service must offer all the major broadcasters in a market, Moreno said.

"If you only have Fox and ABC in one market, but you're still missing NBC and CBS, it doesn't really work," he said.

And signing up individual broadcast affiliates in each market is a time-consuming business. Still, Moreno is confident that more and more broadcasters will see the value and will soon begin offering their content to mobile devices. And once that happens, he believes it will be hard for wireless operators to keep the service off their devices. He believes the threshold necessary to get the attention of wireless operators is to be able to cover 80 percent of the carrier footprint with a wide selection of broadcast channels. He said today, the industry has about 57 percent of the wireless network footprint covered.

Ultimately, he said what broadcasters control is exactly what wireless operators need to make their own mobile TV services successful: video content.

"We own the content," he said. "And ultimately what carriers care about is differentiating their service from their competitors' services. We control the levers that can deliver this content in a way that won't tax their networks."