Nine pubTV stations plan digicasting to mobile devices by year’s end

Broadcasters, including nine pubTV stations and more than 50 network affiliates, will launch mobile DTV in 22 markets later this year, proponents announced at the Consumer Electronics Show last month. Viewers will pick up the signals on devices such as cell phones, laptops and in-vehicle TVs.

To transmit to mobile users, stations will use a fraction of their digital bitstream —1 to 2 megabits per second out of the total 19.4 Mbps, or the equivalent of a low-end SD channel.

Each will also install a new mobile DTV exciter on its transmitter. Harris Corp. expects to have the first exciters available to stations in March. Jim Kutzner, chief engineer at PBS, says equipping a station to transmit one or two mobile channels will cost about $200,000. Stations may choose to invest more in developing channels distinct from their stationary TV services.

Because the FCC is expected to regard mobile DTV as an ancillary service, pubcasters will have the option to stray from the usual noncommercial underwriting rules and sell straight-up advertising. Stations would also be permitted to raise funds by leasing transmission capacity to clients.

Gadget makers likely won’t put out devices with the necessary receiving chips until the Advanced Television Systems Committee agrees on a standard for mobile DTV delivery. ATSC, which has members from the broadcast, motion picture and consumer electronics industries, among others, published a preliminary or “candidate standard” in November and is conducting technical trials. It’s seeking feedback from stakeholders including members of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, an alliance of broadcasters including PBS, CPB and the Association of Public Television Stations. ATSC hopes to approve a final standard in the third quarter of 2009, says Mark Richer, president.

Unlike service provider-based video services, such as Verizon’s V Cast, mobile DTV doesn’t stream video over the carriers’ spectrum. The new broadcast service might have come in handy for cell phone users in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night or on the National Mall for the inauguration, points out Ron Yergovich, v.p. of engineering at WTTW in Chicago, one of the stations adopting mobile DTV. With millions of Obama supporters trying to use their phones on those recent occasions, mobile networks became too clogged for users to make calls, much less watch video. But with mobile DTV, millions could have watched broadcasts on their pocket-size screens.

No wireless carriers or mobile-device manufacturers have committed to providing mobile DTV chips in their gadgets by a certain date, but several manufacturers — including LG Electronics and Kenwood — showcased prototype devices for the mobile DTV demonstrations at CES and last week at the National Association of Television Program Executives conference, both held in Las Vegas. LG showcased a 7-inch widescreen DVD player and a mobile phone with a 3-inch display that featured an electronic TV program guide, among other gadgets. Samsung also has indicated it will produce mobile DTV-friendly products, and several other companies are working on prototypes, Richer says.

“I would guess as we get closer to the end of the year we’ll start to see more trials,” he says. “There’s a significant commitment in the marketplace to make this happen.”

The nine pubTV stations planning to begin mobile DTV service this year are:

  • WNET in New York,
  • WTTW in Chicago,
  • WHYY in Philadelphia,
  • WGBH in Boston,
  • WETA in Washington, D.C.,
  • WTVS in Detroit,
  • WEDU in Tampa, Fla.,
  • WHRO in Norfolk, Va., and
  • WBRA in Roanoke, Va.

WTTW plans to offer one mobile DTV channel, which means giving up one of its four broadcast channels. That will leave it with one HD and two standard-definition channels for public TV broadcasts and a mobile DTV channel for wireless service, Yergovich says.

The main reason WTTW pursued mobile DTV was the freedom to advertise, he says. The station will program its mobile channel as a distinct service, and while it may not stuff the schedule with more ads than usual, interrupt programs or push toys to kids, it may air ads that feature calls to action or other methods that are prohibited on stationary public TV broadcasts. Other pubTV stations may choose to simulcast an existing channel or program another noncommercial service.

Broadcasters are chomping at the bit to get mobile up and running, Richer says. “This is the most excited I’ve ever seen them about anything,” And that includes HD, he adds.

CAPTION

LG Electronics has unveiled several prototype gadgets embedded with a chips that can pick up mobile DTV, including this phone with a 2.8-inch dual-touch screen and QWERTY keyboard.

EARLIER STORY

Tech industry mobilizing to reach portable screens, May 2008.

LINKS

Open Mobile Video Coalition.

ATSC, the industry committee that standardized DTV, proposed a mobile DTV standard in December 2008.

Strong ad sales predicted for mobile DTV, says mocoNews.net.

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