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CES preview: Yet another rollout for mobile digital TV

RCA 2012 MDTV MIT700

Five years ago, Samsung unveiled a digital TV broadcasting technology that was optimized for mobile devices. It's still waiting to sell its first broadcast-enabled smartphones in the United States, just as the TV industry is still waiting for the notion of mobile DTV to take off. But there are signs that the wait may be coming to an end.

On Wednesday, a coalition of TV stations and networks announced a partnership with mobile phone company MetroPCS that will enable the latter's customers in Los Angeles and 13 other markets to tune in the stations' mobile DTV signals later this year. The first compatible device will be an Android smartphone made by Samsung, which will use a telescoping antenna for better reception. In the meantime, RCA plans to show off an Android-based flat-panel TV (shown above) that can tune in the coalition stations' service (called Dyle) at next week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The coalition's formal name is the Mobile Content Venture, and its membership includes Fox, NBC, Univision, Telemundo, ION Television and about a dozen large station ownership groups. Their members have been installing mobile DTV transmission equipment at 72 stations in 32 markets, which reach half of the U.S. population, according to Erik Moreno, a senior vice president at Fox Networks Group and the co-general manager of the coalition. "We needed to make that first move to convince someone like MetroPCS" to offer mobile DTV service to its customers, Moreno said.

That investment by the coalition's members helps overcome the chicken-and-egg problem faced by mobile DTV. But it remains an open question whether consumers will tune in. Qualcomm's high-profile effort to broadcast TV programming to specially equipped cellphones attracted few viewers, in part because it offered only a limited selection of programming. The company eventually abandoned the venture and sold the airwaves to AT&T.

Part of the problem for Qualcomm's Flo TV service was that local stations developed a standard for delivering TV signals to mobile devices over a portion of their own digital channels, cutting out the middleman. Although the standard was adopted in late 2009, however, only 120 of the 1,600 stations in the United States are transmitting mobile DTV signals today. One reason is that few consumers have a device capable of tuning in to those signals -- the industry is starting from scratch. Another reason is the lack of a credible way to determine how many people are watching the mobile signals, making it hard for stations to charge advertisers for commercial time.

The members of Mobile Content Venture have taken the mobile DTV standard one step further, encrypting the signals to control their availability. That might sound counter-intuitive for an industry that has long relied on reaching the largest possible audience on the widest array of devices. But Moreno's counterpart Salil Dalvi, a senior vice president at NBC Universal, said that encryption serves two important purposes. 

First, it enables stations to identify each mobile tuner and track (anonymously) what's being watched, giving it the kind of credible data about audience sizes and locations that advertisers demand. And second, it gives stations the ability to charge for the programs or services they offer mobile users, or to make their content available only to subscribers, in addition to their usual ad-supported business model. Those alternatives give broadcasters multiple ways to get a return on their mobile investment.

"We don't have to decide today exactly which business model is going to be available five years from now," Dalvi said. 

On the other hand, Dyle faces two of the same steep hurdles that felled FloTV: Consumers have to buy new equipment in order to tune in to the programs, and some of the most popular TV content won't be available through the service. Among the missing content: ABC, CBS, ESPN and a panoply of other top cable TV networks.

Then there's the question of whether the stations that aren't members of Mobile Content Venture will deploy technology that's compatible with Dyle, or if they'll start the kind of format war that plagued the music industry in the early days of digital downloads. Many of those stations have joined forces in a group called the Mobile500 Alliance, which wants to develop a multi-channel mobile TV service.

Moreno contended that the risk of dueling, incompatible services was low because there's a broad understanding among broadcasters that such a split doesn't help anyone. There may be competing offerings, he said, but the applications and devices are likely to be interoperable.

Salvi noted mobile devices are far better now than when Flo TV debuted, and there's a much larger base of customers accustomed to using those devices for entertainment. "We have seen strong indicators that consumers want video on their devices, and they want live video on their devices," he said, adding, "We look at consumers here in the United States, and their live TV consumption today, and our experience providing live programming on the phone before -- this is a product that will have resonance with consumers."

RELATED:

CES: Mobile TV face-off

Networks serving up digital TV to go

CES: RCA to launch portable TVs that pick up standard and mobile broadcasts

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Photo: RCA's Android-based flat-panel TV can tune in to mobile DTV signals. Credit: RCA

 
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