YOUR correspondent is always miffed when he sees others taking for granted things he has waited years for. Case in point: the way the Japanese think it is perfectly normal to watch live national and local television free on their mobile phones. In fact, they can do so on practically anything they care to carry around with them—from portable game consoles and electronic dictionaries to satnavs for their cars. And it is not just in Japan that you can watch live television on the hoof. It is also taken for granted in South Korea, China, Brazil and parts of Europe.
Sure, you can do it—sort of—on mobile phones in America. But it certainly is not free; nor is it widespread or capable of providing local news. Verizon, America’s largest mobile operator, offers ten channels of news, sports, prime-time shows and cartoons for an additional $15 a month. AT&T, the number two mobile-phone company, offers a larger package for somewhat less. Both carriers use a technology from Qualcomm called MediaFLO that can deliver more than 20 channels of television to mobile phones.
Unlike elsewhere in the world, though, where mobile television signals are transmitted by broadcasters along with the rest of their over-the-air programming, the “V Cast” and “Mobile TV” television services offered by Verizon and AT&T respectively are streamed jerkily across their cellular networks. That gobbles up precious bandwidth, reducing the network capacity for everyone else.
It is also expensive. It costs carriers around $4 a minute to send a video stream over a cellular network. The comparable figure for beaming live television over the airwaves is less than one cent a minute. Public broadcasting services generally absorb the small additional cost. Commercial broadcasters slot in advertising, which more than makes up the difference. Either way, when beamed rather than streamed, mobile television is free.
Television stations are more than willing to provide mobile versions of their daily fare. With plummeting audience figures, they have been desperate to bring wayward viewers back into the fold. One way of doing so is to encourage people with mobile phones that can show video to use them to catch up on last night’s sitcoms, late shows and sports events.
Better still, the biggest users of mobile television—18 to 34 year-olds—are the audience advertisers would kill for. Evidence shows that, rather than eroding the broadcasters’ viewing figures still further, letting people watch television programmes on portable devices increases audiences for their terrestrial programming generally. Offering free access seems to reinforce the broadcaster’s brand, and boosts viewer loyalty.
With their minuscule screens, mobile phones, game consoles and satnavs are never going to replace television sets. As broadcasters elsewhere have found, mobile viewers “snack” on 15 minutes or so of television programming at a time. They do so mainly to catch up on the news, the sports results and the weather.
The Japanese have been watching wansegu (“1seg”) television since 2005. The country’s early start in mobile television owes as much to its sprawling suburbs as to its broadcasting acumen. Millions of commuters with video-enabled phones in their pockets face tedious daily journeys on crammed commuter trains—with little elbow room for anything more than texting, playing video games or watching television on their phones. The reception isn’t great while travelling at speed and doesn’t work at all underground. But the quality is improving all the time.
In Japan, each of the 50 digital channels of terrestrial television in the UHF band is split into 13 segments. In each channel, high-definition television along with its lesser digital brethren hogs 12 segments, with the remaining one reserved for mobile receivers (hence the name “1seg”). Its bandwidth of 428 kilohertz means a single segment can carry a bare-bones video picture, compact disc-quality audio, and text for news flashes, weather details and emergency announcements. Before being compressed for transmission, the video stream is reformatted for the standard Japanese phone’s 320-by-240 pixel screen.
Elsewhere, the preferred technology for beaming television to mobile phones is known as DVB-H (short for digital video broadcasting to a hand-held). Nowadays, commercial services using DVB-H, which was officially adopted by the European Union in 2004, exist throughout much of Asia as well as in Europe. Brazil, with its historical ties to Japan, has adopted a version of the 1seg system.
Where does this leave America? As with much else concerning mobile phones, it leaves it once again scrambling to catch up. At the Consumer Electronics Show being held in Las Vegas between January 7th and 10th, more than a dozen companies will introduce a variety of new products for mobile television technology.
Things have certainly improved since last June, when analogue television broadcasting in the country finally fell silent. The switch to all-digital TV has released chunks of broadcasting spectrum for other uses. Some 30 television stations in 17 cities across the country have now installed additional transmitters on their towers to beam live local broadcasts to mobile receivers mostly for nothing.
The technology for doing so, known as ATSC M/H (advanced television systems committee—mobile/handheld), was formally approved a couple of months ago after years of discussion and subsequent field trials. Like mobile television services in other countries, ATSC M/H is derived from the national digital television standard for beaming programmes to fixed antennas on rooftops. As is to be expected, ordinary digital transmission is nowhere near robust enough to cope with the problems experienced by a mobile receiver, which can suffer from all sorts of doppler-shift effects and multipath radio interference as it moves around the place.
The biggest difference between the terrestrial form of ATSC and its mobile derivative, however, is that the newcomer uses the robust internet-protocol form of transport. Instead of being sent as a steady stream of data, ATSC M/H fires its video and audio information in bursts of small packets that are collected and stored at the receiving end before being reassembled into a continuous stream of television programming. This “burst mode” of transmission allows the power-gobbling part of the mobile receiver to be turned off for 90% of the time, thereby prolonging its battery life. A typical mobile-phone battery should provide about three-and-a-half hours of television viewing before needing to be recharged.
The big question now is whether the 800 television stations in America that have embraced the new ATSC M/H standard can persuade the mobile phone operators to have the necessary television-tuner chips built into their handsets. Both Verizon and AT&T, which between them account for more than half the mobile phone market in America, are committed to Qualcomm’s proprietary MediaFLO system—and have spent fortunes beefing up their networks in a bid to improve the video experience. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has been talking about becoming a mobile-television distributor in its own right. The plot for mobile viewers thickens.
As Japanese and Korean broadcasters found in the past, it took concerted government effort to get their countries’ mobile phone companies on board. But once they were, the market for television phones took off rapidly. Over 80% of mobiles in both countries now have television tuners built in.
Carriers in America have far greater control over which handsets people can use on their networks. The mobile-phone companies have talked endlessly about “opening” up their networks so that consumers can have greater choice, but little has happened. It looks as though the Federal Communications Commission may yet have to step in if the industry as a whole is to make its long-overdue leap into the present.
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