Monday, June 09, 2008

TV Anytime & Anywhere

Over the past nine months or so I have been involved on a national committee looking at systems for providing video programming to mobile and hand held devices. Representatives from the major broadcast groups and other industry leaders have been examining how the new digital broadcast system can be used for more applications than only that new HD TV set in the family room.

You would have to be living on a deserted island not to be aware that the world of communications has gone mobile. More and more young people don’t even have a hard- wired phone line, choosing instead the flexibility and convenience of the cell phone. The Black Berry®, or one of the myriad of similar portable communication/assistant devices, has replaced the red “power tie” in corporate conference rooms large and small. So it is only logical that TV programming too will migrate to an untethered universe.

There are already some nascent video services being provided for viewing on cell phones. Verizon® and others offer expanded video services. So far these have only been offered in selected markets and are somewhat pricey. The main issue is that video programming is a ravenous consumer of bandwidth. As an example, if we take the bandwidth currently being used to provide only one channel of public television using UHF Channel 48 and use it for voice or data transmission, we could provide thousands of individual phone conversations and computer connections with the web. One TV program or thousands of other services. So when you send video over a cell phone network, it really can clog up the works. This means it is not very robust and it is expensive to provide.

As I have written repeatedly in this column, TV in the US has already converted to digital technology with the end of the analog TV age coming in about seven months. The group that I have been serving with is engaged in developing a system that uses part of the broadcaster’s digital signal to send video programming to mobile devices. The conversion to digital allows a more efficient use of the bandwidth.

Some examples. That back seat video screen in the mini van that now displays programs from the same old DVDs will be able to receive new live special programming aimed akids. No more “if I have to come back there” pronouncements. While our area does not have as many mass transit commuters as some of the major US cities, even here, some bus riders might enjoy watching the morning news programs while riding the Metro down I-74.

It may come as a surprise to some that the US is far behind many other countries in deploying this technology. Japan, Korea and some of the Scandinavian countries have very robust mobile networks and mobile video services. In these countries, a combination of government subsidy and consumer demand has spawned higher speed networks and lower prices.

In the US some of the mobile video services will be riding on the broadcast digital TV system and it is anticipated that much of the cost will be absorbed by advertisers. Time will tell.

The first of the mobile services are projected to launch in 2009.

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