As the Mobile Digital TV (MDTV) market begins to ramp up, numerous new broadcast standards and technologies have emerged, creating a highly fragmented market. The subject of whether mobile TV will become a reality is no longer in question, but the issues of ‘how’ and ‘where’ this will happen remain to be seen. Will Europe eventually emerge as a unified mobile TV zone, or will it be split among several different technologies? Alon Ironi takes a look
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There are currently more than ten competing broadcast MDTV technologies worldwide, including those under development. These are DVB-T, DVB-H, DVB-SH, MediaFLO, DAB, T-DMB, DAB-IP, TMMB, ISDB-T, CMMB and DMBT – which are deployed over multiple spectrum bands – VHF, UHF and at least two slices of “L” band and the “S” band for satellite broadcasting.
The implications of the multi-standard reality mean that operators and handset manufacturers require maximum flexibility. In a traditional cellular communications market, operators are in charge of the entire operation from A to Z – the network, the infrastructure and everything required for delivering services to the consumer. The MDTV market operates differently. Cellular operators do not build the networks and infrastructure but instead follow a TV service provider model, where broadcasters such as T-Systems, Swisscom Broadcast and Mediaset install the mobile TV network, including infrastructure, towers and content aggregation. Operators will then buy the service from the TV service provider to bring it to the end user as a commercial service. Even though operators each have a preference for standards, they need the flexibility to work with two or more different MDTV service providers to create competition and get a better deal. Phone manufacturers also want the ability to sell their phones in multiple countries or in countries where there is more than one MDTV standard – requiring a multi-standard phone supported by a multi-standard receiver chips. For handset manufacturers, multi-standard chips present an opportunity to streamline hardware and software design while reducing the overall design cycle and R&D costs. With a multi-standard chip, manufacturers can invest in one platform, which can then yield several commercial models for different standards.
Therefore how Europe’s fragmented MDTV market will evolve in the next few years will ultimately impact the strategy of local operators and handset manufacturers. Taking a look at the current and recent European MDTV rollout – conclusions can be drawn about which direction Europe is moving in vis-à-vis unification of MDTV broadcasting standards.
European MDTV overview
Telecom Italia’s introduction of commercial MDTV services, together with the birth of free-to-air DTV within Europe, firmly kick-started Europe’s MDTV efforts in 2006.
The DVB-H standard made a moderately successful debut in Italy during the 2006 soccer world cup event, achieving over half a million users in a period of nine months. Telecom Italia currently offers DVB-H mobile TV services in over 2500 towns and cities across Italy and is aiming for over 1 million subscribers by the end of 2008. H3 is also competing for customers in Italy, again offering MDTV over the DVB-H network. Three leading handset manufacturers, LG, Samsung and ZTE are enabling end-users in Italy to receive the DVB-H signal, and a range of new consumer handheld devices are emerging in Italy, already integrated with the relevant DVB-H receiver chips ready to support local MDTV. However, outside of Italy different countries within Europe are dabbling with various other standards.
British Telecom had developed a new broadcasting standard called DAB-IP, a derivative of the DAB family. However, it’s commercial rollout in the UK with Virgin Mobile in October 2006 turned out to be a failure, with limited reception and poor picture quality resulting in disgruntled consumers. But the UK was already exploring other opportunities, having trialled DVB-H with O2 in early 2006 and teaming up with Qualcomm and BSkyB to trial MediaFLO across certain towns in the UK in the latter half of the year. Results were positive across the board, with 85 per cent of 375 users satisfied with the DVB-H service (providing around 16 channels) – and 72 per cent indicating willingness to start paying for it. The MediaFLO trial also achieved promising results – showing superior channel switching time to DVB-H.
Germany presents a slightly unique picture within the European framework. Enjoying around 82 per cent DAB coverage nationwide, T-DMB commercial rollout began in time for the FIFA World Cup in June 2006 through operators Debitel, Mobilcom, Vodafone, E-Plus and O2 and handset providers Samsung. Although user adoption was disappointing (only 3000 handsets sold), a second stage is planned that will use additional channels and more devices to entice users. Like a few other countries within Europe with strong deployment of DAB radio, such as the UK, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland and Denmark, the existing DAB infrastructure in Germany makes it easier, and cheaper, to deploy T-DMB or DAB-IP. Despite this, Germany is still poised to become a DVB-H country with leading German operator, T-Systems, opting to trial DVB-H also during the FIFA world cup in 2006. With strong indoor and outdoor coverage, a wide selection of channels and devices from BenQ, Sagem, Nokia and Motorola, the trial was a great success. A consortium led by Vodafone plans to commercially rollout a DVB-H network by the end of 2007, meeting consumer demand ahead of the European Cup in 2008. But it isn’t just football matches that are shaping the MDTV market across Germany and Europe.
Other countries following suit with DVB-H include Austria and Finland. The latter has DVB-H since end of 2006, but still lacks content and operator support, while the first enjoys state financing and free offering of the service by 3Austria and MobilKom.
Additional European countries expected to commercially deploy DVB-H services in 2007, indicating the beginning of DVB-H domination in Europe, include the Czech Republic, France, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland the Ukraine and Russia.
Europe – the case for DVB-H
The expected evolution of Europe into a DVB-H zone is a conclusion that is currently shaped by a combination of technological, economic and political influences.
In March 2007 the EU Information Society Commissioner Viviane Redding filed a recommendation for a single uniform MDTV standard across the EU that favourably backed DVB-H. There is also a new EU law being developed that will allow broadcasters to operate under their own national law and sell mobile TV broadcasts through the 25-nation union, again strengthening the case for a unified single standard across the EU.
On the technological front, analogue switch-off throughout Europe in the next decade has resulted in DVB-T deployment in homes in more than 20 countries in the continent, but until recently, power consumption and reception quality did not permit mobile usage. However, the availability of advanced receiver chips, and the debut (in Q1 2007) of the world's first DVB-T mobile phone by Taiwanese maker Gigabyte led manufacturers to view DVB-T as a practical, effective MDTV technology. This has not won support from mobile operators, since most DVB-T content today is free of charge. Technically speaking, there is nothing that prevents subscriber-based DVB-T services, so this is a one viable direction for MDTV in Europe. However, the extensive deployment of DVB-T networks actually supports the case for DVB-H in the future, as DVB-H can operate on existing DVB-T networks. Thus it is most likely – given the current DVB-H trials and the existing DVB-T infrastructure - that this will lead to the natural evolution of DVB-H in Europe.
Although DVB-H can operate on existing DVB-T networks, the infrastructure must be significantly expanded for mobile devices, costing a few hundred million dollars for a sizeable country like Germany or France – a negative factor for broadcasters and operators. It is also worth nothing that there are additional challenges for the adoption of DVB-H – and mobile TV across Europe as a whole. These include regulation, protection of IP rights of the content owners, aggregation of content at low prices and consumer preferences. Surprisingly, recent polls have found out that mobile TV end users enjoy watching mobile TV at home. This calls for deep indoor coverage, which might increase the cost of the broadcasting infrastructure. The challenge partially falls on the terminal and component makers – high sensitivity of the antennae and the receiver chips and careful design of the terminals may reduce the required network density, thus the infrastructure expenses.
Despite competition and market challenges, the political and technological factors still weigh in favour of DVB-H. However, with a range of additional standards and alternative MDTV broadcasting infrastructure in places such as the UK and Germany, what advantages does DVB-H offer?
DVB-H exhibits benefits such as extra error correction to allow for reception in poor conditions and a time slicing mechanism to reduce power consumption. In effect this means that consumers can watch mobile TV on various portable devices, without loss of battery power, for longer than other standards. In addition, DVB-H offers strong spectral efficiency, allowing up to 15 channels including radio and data channels. For full nation-wide MDTV schemes, DVB-H is complemented by DVB-SH (still under development), which is capable of covering out-of-town zones directly via satellite, thus reducing infrastructure overheads. The only other standard that is comparable in performance to DVB-H is Qualcomm’s MediaFLO, which offers better channel switching time but inferior power consumption.
Thus the anticipated regional segmentation points towards Europe becoming a DVB-H zone, supported by the above factors. Economies of scale strengthen this argument, as rising costs of alternative MDTV standards within the EU will be eradicated by a single uniform standard. Perhaps DAB-IP and T-DMB may prevail in the UK and Germany respectively, but ultimately we are likely to witness urban and rural consolidation of DVB-H, the highest performing standard on the market.