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New networks for mobile TV

Two tech stalwarts are building ambitious "supercharged" networks that could help make mobile TV commonplace in the U.S.

Two tech industry stalwarts are building ambitious "supercharged" networks that could help make mobile television commonplace in the United States.

Cell phone technology company Qualcomm, through its MediaFlo subsidiary, and wireless operator Crown Castle International, through its Modeo subsidiary, are both investing millions of dollars in new mobile networks that will broadcast live TV programming to cell phones across the country.

They both hope to become the big players in a market some analysts believe will see explosive growth in the coming years. ABI Research estimates the market for mobile TV equipment and services could jump from $200 million this year to $27 billion by the end of the decade.


What's new:
Qualcomm's MediaFlo subsidiary and Crown Castle International's Modeo subsidiary are investing millions of dollars in mobile networks that will broadcast live TV shows to cell phones nationwide.

Bottom line:
With a "multicasting" ability that mimics conventional TV broadcasting, the networks promise to be more viable than the "unicasting" 3G wireless networks built by Sprint and others--at least when it comes to high volumes of live TV. It's still too early to say whether MediaFlo or Modeo will prevail, but it's clear they won't be the only two players for long.

"We know there's strong interest from consumers for prerecorded mobile TV," said Michael Gartenberg, a research director at Jupiter Research. "New networks could help drive this demand, but the challenge is getting carriers to adopt the technology and encouraging people to subscribe."

Though mobile operators such as Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless have spent billions of dollars over the last few years building new 3G wireless networks in order to deliver new services such as video, their networks could be woefully inadequate for delivering high volumes of live TV programming.

3G wireless networks are designed to be "unicast," which means signals are transmitted between a single sender and a single receiver. If 500,000 people in a city decide to watch the Super Bowl on their cell phones, the network has to transmit a copy of the video to each user.

That's where MediaFlo and Modeo come in: They're attempting to build the heavy-duty network that can make mobile TV work. They're working on networks designed for "multicast" transmission, which means they transmit signals once to many devices. This is exactly how traditional broadcast television works.

The companies last week were showing off their technology with handset partners at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Samsung Electronics and LG demonstrated handsets that used the MediaFlo technology, while Motorola and Nokia showed off handsets using Modeo's technology.

"The economics of beaming the same signal to millions of people at the same time just doesn't work," said Rob Chandhok, vice president of engineering and market development for Qualcomm's MediaFlo. "You really need a broadcast network."

The business models and technology of the two companies are fundamentally similar. And both expect to have service rolled out to some parts of the country by the end of this year. They don't expect to provide service directly to consumers, but hope to partner with existing carriers.

Chandhok believes cellular operators can build a business model that incorporates both on-demand content from the 3G network and live programming over the MediaFlo network. In the end, he argues, carriers benefit because they can charge different prices for different kinds of content. In December, MediaFlo announced that Verizon Wireless signed up to be the company's first official customer when the service goes live.

Even though Modeo hasn't yet announced any carrier customers, Michael Ramke, vice president of marketing and business development for the company, agreed that working with cellular operators is critical to Modeo's success.

"There are 180 million cellular subscribers in the U.S. today," Ramke said. "And they all subscribe to some sort of cellular service. So, yes, it makes sense for us to pursue a wholesale model in order to reach those customers."

Modeo is using an open standards technology called DVB-H (digital video broadcast--handheld), while MediaFlo is using technology Qualcomm has developed called FLO. Though there are some technical differences between the two technologies, there are also many similarities. Both technologies use OFDM, or Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing, a modulation technology that sends multiple signals at different frequencies to get the maximum use out of spectrum bandwidth. Both technologies also use a kind of time division multiplexing to transmit specific content at specific time intervals.

But MediaFlo claims that its FLO technology has been designed to provide more-efficient use of spectrum, which would lead to higher-quality video and audio, faster channel-switching time, superior mobile reception, optimized power consumption and greater capacity.

"Some of the basics of the technology may be similar, but the way it's been implemented is different," said Albert Lin, an analyst at American Technology Research. "And these differences impact the actual user experience. FLO was designed especially to deliver mobile TV, while DVB-H is a standard based on older broadcast TV technology."

Another big difference between the MediaFlo and Modeo networks is the radio frequency spectrum each has chosen to use in building its network. MediaFlo uses the 700MHz spectrum, while Modeo uses spectrum between 1,670MHz and 1,675MHZ. Cellular operators use spectrum between 800MHz and 1,900MHz.

The 700MHz spectrum is key to MediaFlo's claim that it can build a cost-effective network, because this spectrum allows signals to be transmitted over long distances with fewer radios. The lower the frequency of operation, the farther signals propagate and the better able they are to penetrate obstacles like trees and buildings. MediaFlo can cover the entire city of San Diego, for example, with only five FLO transmitters, compared with hundreds of bay stations that must be deployed by cellular operators in order to cover an entire city with cell phone access.

MediaFlo plans to spend $800 million over the next four to five years to build its network nationwide. By contrast, Modeo estimates it will cost about $500 million over the next two years to provide service in 30 of the top markets in the U.S. It plans to offer service in a handful of cities this year, including New York. Still, Modeo's Ramke argued that his competitor's claims of cost-effectiveness are overblown.

MediaFlo's approach does have one big shortcoming. The 700MHz spectrum it taps is currently being used to transmit analog TV signals. Though in many areas of the country, MediaFlo's designated channel, Channel 55, is not being used, but there are areas where broadcasters are still using it. In those places, MediaFlo must negotiate with individual broadcasters to gain access to the channel.

This won't be an issue after the U.S. moves from analog TV to digital. A deadline of Feb. 18, 2009, was set as part of legislation that passed the U.S. Senate last year.

Though it's still too early to say which of these two companies will trump the other when it comes to providing mobile TV infrastructure, it's clear they won't be the only two players for long. As the U.S. government auctions more channels in the 700MHz band, more players are expected to emerge.

"We see this as a really huge potential market," Ramke said. "And it's still in the early stages. There's still a lot of spectrum yet to be auctioned off, so I'm sure we'll see more competition."