John Merli /
11.09.2005 12:00 AM
Getting Serious About Mobile TV
WASHINGTON: A mobile TV wholesaler from down under with the unconventional mon-iker of Crown Castle is hoping that size matters--and the smaller the screen, the better. Mix in Apple's recent launch of its latest iPod music player that comes with its own set of tiny-TV options and EchoStar's introduction of its handheld PocketDish media player, and suddenly the competition for the small screen just got a whole lot more interesting. Now all everybody needs is users.

BAPTISM UNDER FIRE

Crown Castle Mobile Media, the low-key company's U.S.-based wireless unit, owns its own towers and serves as a conduit (in more ways than one) to various carriers, providing cell firms--which already provide more typical services such as voice, cameras, and now music downloads--with the latest add-on de-rived from the second-oldest of all electronic media: television.

Crown Castle's DVB-H (digital video broadcasting-handheld) technology is now un-dergoing its first real baptism-under-fire with consumers in the Pitts-burgh market, near Crown Castle's American home base of Canonsburg, Pa. It's been testing its mobile TV service in the market for approximately a year with plans to eventually take its mobile TV services national.

DVB-H is an open industry standard engineered to deliver mobile broadcast digital TV in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Crown Castle has selected Windows Media Audio, Windows Media Video 9, and Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10 as the software backbone of DVB-H, which the firm demonstrated at NAB2005. Along with Nokia, other equipment and service partners include Axcera, Thales, Kathrein and SES Americom. Additional trials are being conducted in Germany, Finland, the U.K., Australia and France.

At a demonstration of its technolopgy at the IEEE Broadcast Symposium here last month, Crown Castle President Michael Schueppert said that one of the unique features of the Pittsburgh trial is the use of L-band spectrum; no broadcast TV channels had to go dark. The system operates within a 5 MHz channel in the 1.670 GHz region, formerly set aside for weather balloon telemetry. With the advent of weather satellites, it had gone largely unused and is now cleared nationwide.

"I want to thank the FCC for freeing up spectrum for this purpose," Schueppert said. "The FCC is letting the marketplace decide the best use."

A 200-watt transmitter is being used for the Pittsburgh trial. With antenna gain, it delivers a two KW EIRP. The service has the potential to reach an estimated 750,000 people in the Pittsburgh area. Nokia provided its model 7710 handset units with a DVB-H tuner built in for evaluation of the trial service.

Another feature of the Crown Castle field test is the use of satellite linkage for delivery of program content to the "cell" transmitter, instead of leased terrestrial connectivity. Such delivery allowed the system to be easily demonstrated to the Symposium audience. A temporary Ku-band antenna at the conference site delivered digitally encrypted signals to a demodulator and a low-powered L-band transmitter located in the presentation area. The same audio and video signals seen in Pittsburgh were available for viewing by the audience on the Nokia devices.

When asked about the number of channels that the system can accommodate, Schueppert said that with the technology in use, 10 would be possible. "Possibly four or five times that, but we promised 10 channels 'hand of heart,'" he said.

He also commented on the operational features of the delivery system.

"They want it to work just like TV--to work anywhere, simple to operate, TiVo features," he said.

In mid-October, Crown Castle reportedly signed an agreement with Verizon Wireless, the second-largest cell carrier in the nation, to deliver live TV content (starting with about 10 channels) to phones and other handhelds by early 2006, using Crown Castle's network. Neither Crown Mobile nor Verizon Wireless would confirm reports of a long-term deal.

"We're always on the lookout for opportunities to further differentiate our network quality and service from our competitors'. But at this point we don't have anything to announce," said Verizon Wireless spokesman Sheldon Jones.

In late September, Intel demonstrated a multichannel TV broadcast to Windows-based mobile devices equipped with DVB-H receivers, a U.S. first, (previous U.S. demos had tapped local transmissions from UHF frequencies). The demo used Crown Castle's network infrastructure on the 1670 MZ wideband.

PORTABLE VIDEO FROM APPLE & DISH

Apple's much-anticipated announcement of the launch of its video iPod in mid-October was hardly a surprise, but reaction was swift, many heralding a new era of mobile TV.

The iPod Video features a 2.5-inch color screen that displays music videos, video Podcasts, home movies (using Apple software, of course) and recorded TV shows. (No Crown Castle-like "live TV," for the moment). The new iPod holds up to 150 hours of video, along with thousands of songs, as usual, and it's priced no higher than the original music-only units.

In conjunction with the launch, Disney-ABC announced it would sign on as an iPod content provider. (Three ABC shows--"Desperate House-wives," "Lost," and "Night Stalker"-- are available online from Apple iTunes for $1.99 an episode.)

The agreement, which reportedly was not revealed to ABC affiliates prior to the iPod launch, caused some initial concern. Deb McDermott, former chairperson of the ABC Affiliates Board and president of Young Broadcasting, which owns five ABC affiliates, refused to speculate on the possible impact on her stations, if any, of the iPod Video. "My only concern right now is what type of impact it may have on on-air viewing," she said.

The same week Apple launched its video iPod, EchoStar's Dish Network announced the availability of its handheld PocketDish, which downloads and plays video, in addition to thousands of songs and photos. Three initial models come with 2.2-inch, 4-inch or 7-inch LCD screens. EchoStar says the units can download or record content from a PC or Mac, a digital camera or a USB stick--as well as from traditional DVD players, camcorders and VCRs.

EchoStar also touts fast video transfer speeds when attaching its PocketDish to its regular home-based DVR hardware via a USB 2.0 connection, where it says an hour of Dish Network programming could be transferred to the handheld's hard drive in about five minutes. (Thus, a typical-length motion picture will take about 8-10 min. to capture.)

THE THIRD SCREEN

Considering the ubiquity of TV today from living rooms to kitchens to offices to sports bars, why is there the consumer desire, if any, to take TV on the road, and in extremely miniaturized form? "Because the cell phone is quickly becoming the third screen after the television and the computer," says telecom analyst and author Jeff Kagan. "And this is just the beginning. Crown Castle's plan is to launch a more expansive offering."

Kagan said that mobile television is the next big thing consumers (especially gadget lovers) are going to help unfold, and eventually mobile TV will be mainstream enough to make a difference in how television is produced and marketed. "TV is not forward-thinking [but] we are beginning to see changes now. Blending with the Internet, television and telephony are going to share the network and that will open up a whole new range of services in coming years. But there first has to be a big market banging on the doors to wake up TV executives," Kagan said.

The reason consumers want their cell phones to do more is because that's the way the industry is designing it, according to Kagan.

"The [mobile] industry sees wireless as a natural extension of the wired world we're connected to. Today we see two distinct wireless customers developing: the customer who wants a phone; and the customer who wants assorted other features on the phone, as well.

"We're just in the beginning of the transition of what these phone devices are going to eventually turn into," Kagan said. "We don't yet know which pricing model the industry will settle on--and it is not going to be for every customer--but for those who want it, mobile TV will be big."

James O'Neal contributed to this report.


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