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Mobile television – what's happening?

It's gone a bit quiet on the DVB-H front of late, so what's happening? When will we see mobile TV services in Australia?

Watching video clips on your mobile phone is nothing new, but some technologies waiting in the wings promise to turn your handset into a fully fledged television set.

Rather than being restricted to short viewing sessions and a limited number of programs, the technologies will let you watch for as long as you wish, and choose from a large number of channels.

Such services are already being rolled out overseas and, if a few regulatory hurdles can be overcome, they may soon be available in Australia.

With Nokia poised to launch its anticipated N96 that includes DVB-H capabilities, will it be a case of "sell them and they will come" for the television operators? (Credit: Nokia)

Competing standards
As is often the case in the world of technology, there are a variety of competing standards when it comes to getting television onto you mobile. Each has its backers and all are vying to be the final choice. But, just as VHS won over Beta and Blu-ray saw off HD-DVD, in the end it's likely there will be just one winner.

The main contenders are:

  • DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting for Handhelds)

  • Backed by handset heavyweight Nokia and a range of European mobile carriers, DVB-H works in the same way as existing digital television services. Signals are broadcast from towers direct to compatible handsets, bypassing the mobile phone networks altogether.

    Proponents say the system is best because it is not constrained by the capacity of the networks. So, if thousands of people want to watch a sporting event at the same time, the system can deliver them good-quality video and sound.

    The downside is that the service requires the allocation of a chunk of radio spectrum and the installation of new broadcast equipment.

  • MBMS (Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service)

  • Backed by Ericsson and another group of mobile carriers, MBMS piggybacks on existing mobile networks. Video is carried over the network in the same way as phone calls and delivered to compatible handsets.

    MBMS-enabled networks actively monitor the number of subscribers viewing particular feeds. When the number rises above a pre-determined level, the streams are switched automatically from uni-cast (one-to-one transmission) to a broadcast feed sent over the mobile network. That way, large numbers of viewers can be catered for without running into network capacity limits.

    One big advantage of MBMS technology for mobile operators is that it requires only a software upgrade to their existing 3G networks. This does away with the need for extra radio spectrum and broadcast equipment.

  • MediaFLO (Media Forward Link Only)

  • A third alternative, created by US-based Qualcomm, uses a broadcast technique similar to that of DVB-H. However, rather than making it an open standard, the company has opted for a closed shop. In the US, the company has been busy acquiring its own radio spectrum and building its own network, keeping the whole thing very close to its corporate chest.

    According to Qualcomm, MediaFLO can offer more choice for users because the compression techniques used mean more channels can be broadcast in a given chunk of spectrum.

    Industry watchers expect that the technology will prove popular in the US, but remain less convinced of its potential for success in other parts of the world.

The control room at Broadcast Australia during their mobile TV trial in Sydney. Click to enlarge (Credit: Broadcast Australia)

Successful trials
Keen to prove that their approach to mobile TV is ready for prime time, technology companies have been conducting a number of limited trials in countries around the world.

In mid-2007, Ericsson teamed with 3 Mobile to conduct a live trial of MBMS in Sydney. While neither company is prepared to reveal details, they can confirm that all went well.

"From a technology perspective it is ready," says Ericsson's global head of media and internet Hubert Kjellberg. "MBMS uses the existing (radio) spectrum and the infrastructure that is already in place for 3G mobile services."

In May last year, a second trial was conducted by Nokia and Telstra using a limited DVB-H installation in Sydney. The trial, which ran for three months, used a transmission tower near the city to broadcast a limited number of channels to a select group of users. Both companies report the trials were a success.

The wait for spectrum
For backers of DVB-H, there is only one significant hurdle yet to be jumped in Australia before services can be rolled out: radio spectrum allocation. Because DVB-H is broadcast in the same way as television, it requires its own dedicated slice of spectrum in which to operate.

According to Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) spokesperson Donald Robertson, allocations have been made for possible mobile television services, however, final confirmation of the spectrum is in the hands of the federal government.

Two chunks of spectrum have been earmarked. The first, known as channel A, is likely to be used to provide new digital television channels to complement existing free-to-air services. The second, channel B, has been slated for a range of different applications, including mobile television.

At this point there is no indication of when the federal government will make the final decision on spectrum, allowing services to begin.

We first started talking about mobile TV with the introduction of the Nokia N92 back in 2005. (Credit: Nokia)

Handsets
There are already a small number of TV-compatible mobile handsets on the market and this is expected to increase quickly as services start to appear.

In Australia, Nokia is taking a "Field of dreams" approach (Build it and they will come ... ) by announcing that it will have its much anticipated N96 handset with DVB-H capabilities on the market before any services have been switched on.

Nokia vice president of industry liaison Mark Selby says rolling out the device means there will be a bunch of people who will be able to enjoy DVB-H services the moment they begin.

"We are essentially delivering a ready-made audience to broadcasters," he says. "It will quickly become a very popular offering."

Nokia has previously unveiled its N92 and N77 handsets, both of which are DVB-H compatible. The N92 is equipped with the 2.8-inch fold-out screen designed for television viewing, while the N77 offers the same functions but in a smaller size.

Meanwhile, Samsung has produced the P930 DVB-H-compatible handset, with a 2.3-inch display and picture-in-picture capabilities, making it possible to view two mobile channels at the same time.

Mobile TV content
Once mobile TV services are operational in Australia, advocates say users can expect a broad selection of content. Just as the introduction of extra digital channels and cable television increased the choices available, so mobile services will do the same thing.

Nokia's Selby says mobile TV is particularly attractive to broadcasters and their advertisers who are desperate to find ways to attract the eyeballs of people in the 16- to 34-year-old age demographic. These people tend to watch less traditional television but are big users of other mobile services.

"This is a great way to reach this audience," he says. "You can deliver content and advertising in a way that has not previously been possible."

While some of the content made available to mobile handsets will be a simple re-transmission of existing free-to-air broadcasts, industry experts agree there will be a growing volume of material produced specifically for the new platform.

Producers will be able to take advantage of the interactivity options of handsets, allowing viewers to do things such as voting and sending feedback about the content they are viewing.

"When you have more people voting for Big Brother contestants than vote in local and national elections you can see the demand for this kind of interactivity," says Selby.

The future
There's little doubt that television will quickly become a standard feature in the majority of handsets during the next couple of years. Just as mobile phones have swallowed everything from contact books and diaries to cameras and music players, so they will become the device of choice for entertainment on the move.

Rather than having to be content with pre-recorded entertainment to pass the time during those long daily commutes, you'll soon be able to catch up on live sporting events or the latest episodes of that favourite soap.

Watching television on your mobile will seem as natural as making a call or sending a text message. The future is visual.