Long reads


Motion pictures

Mobile broadcast has been slow to take off, and mobile operators are increasingly questioning whether the technology will be needed. Farah Jifri examines the issues.

Mobile TV is has been a major topic of debate for a while now, much of it generated by broadcast technology standards: DVB-H/DVB-SH versus MediaFLO or DMB. We have long been led to believe that broadcast technologies are essential to getting any mass-market mobile TV business off the ground, the belief being that non-broadcast technologies would not be able to cope with the large bandwidth requirements or deliver the high quality images that end users demanded.

Shift in thinking

More recently however, there has been something of a shift in thinking, largely driven by the rapidly changing viewer habits of an increasingly content-hungry audience. Thierry Fautier, director of telco solutions at video technology company Harmonic believes that mobile operators are shying away from adoption of DVB-H and the like as they represent a linear TV delivery, or ‘appointment TV’ type model that just doesn’t fit with the demands of today’s consumers. “The only benefit of mobile broadcast is scalability. In Japan and Korea it is offered as a free service, bringing no revenue. Operators are looking at how to augment this with on-demand and catch-up TV on the 3G network,” says Fautier.
This view is shared by RealNetwork’s director of product management for Helix products, Scott MacKenzie: “There can be no doubt that broadcast remains an efficient way to deliver to huge simultaneous audiences and to relieve network congestion concerns,” he says. “However much of the advantage of broadcast is lost in light of the growth of larger capacity 3G and forthcoming 4G networks which will provide sufficient bandwidth for both current and projected mobile TV subscriber penetration rates.”
And in the short-to-medium term, the view from telco infrastructure supplier Ericsson is that there will be continued evolution of the mobile network, based on HSPA and LTE, in order to successfully make future services a realistic prospect. “We can also expect to see greater convergence of the various distribution channels for end user equipment, which will in turn require a convergence amongst service enablers to ensure there are ‘access-agnostic’ mobile TV services across multiple networks and devices,” says Tim Baker, director of media solutions,  Ericsson.
Nevertheless, the broadcast model is not about to be written off just yet. Since spectrum is finite, operators need to devise an optimal means of delivering their services within the spectrum they have. As Motorola’s director of mobile video and applications marketing Venkat Eswara points out, offering a video-based service takes up spectrum that could be allocated for other potential revenue streams.
Paul Anderson, director, business development, mobile TV at technology provider Harris Broadcast Communications, also agrees that broadcast has a role to play. “Multicast mobile TV, regardless of the technology, benefits mobile operators by operating in frequencies other than those used for voice and data services,” he says. Anderson points out that broadcast technology allows many viewers to receive the same content, at the same time, without impacting network capacity. If mobile operators can make a case that ARPU will be raised by offering the service, then we can expect that they will do so.

“Much of the advantage of broadcast is lost in light of the growth of larger capacity 3G and forthcoming 4G networks.”
Scott MacKenzie, RealNetworks

According to Anders Nortström, chief operating officer at mobile TV specialist MobiTV, one of the major advantages of broadcast has little to do with the technology: “There are existing technologies as well as new technologies being developed to deal with the ‘typical’ argument around congestion in the carriers networks such as MBMS. Where broadcast services do play a big role is to gain access to local programming.” Nortström points to the US, where each of the major broadcasters might have over 200 affiliates countrywide, amounting to some 900 stations. This volume of content will require a broadcast platform. As part of the switch to digital TV in the US the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) has also defined a mobile version – ATSC MPH (Mobile Personal Handheld) – of the digital TV standard. Although currently in the trial stage, there are plans to launch services early in 2010. “With this approach you are able to supply the viewer with local content as well as premium content combined with video-on-demand, interactivity and personalisation by combining broadcast and unicast,” Nortström explains.
Nortström argues that the model for revenue generation when broadcast mobile TV services, combined with unicast services, are rolled out won’t be all that dissimilar to the regular TV market: on-demand content, integrated channel guides, interactivity and premium up-sell using the carriers’ networks true two way transactions and services. “Far from being the threat that many in the industry see it, free-to-air mobile TV will benefit the premium mobile content business,” he says.
While technologies including MBMS will solve the issues of the distribution network bandwidth it will not solve potential pitfalls that will arise from the sheer number of users who can access services from a single tower in high population centres, according to Richard Stanfield, chief operating officer at mobile video compression specialist Envivio.
“Be aware that both Apple and Windows Mobile are promoting a new technology based on client-pull video via HTTP. In Apple’s case this is HTTP streaming and Microsoft calls its technology Smooth Streaming. It uses standard CDN technology to distribute content in real-time and negates the use of either multicast or unicast RTP streams. New technologies that address simultaneous high bandwidth connections will solve more problems than addressing the distribution network to the towers,” Stanfield explains.

Well-equipped

In terms of how well equipped current mobile networks are to handle video traffic, the opinions are divided between a pro-3G camp and those who see 3G as intrinsically flawed.
Mona Klausing, head of public relations at Qualcomm/MediaFLO Technologies, argues that 3G networks have been found wanting when subjected to high volumes of traffic. “Some operators have witnessed first-hand that 3G networks cannot support a mass market audience downloading multimedia content to thousands or millions of mobile devices simultaneously without experiencing painful network slowdowns and degradation in quality due to escalating mobile usage,” Klausing says. She points to reports from Australia where huge demand for mobile video during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing crashed some of the 3G networks.
RealNetworks’ MacKenzie  takes the opposing view that that 3G is providing sufficient bandwidth to meet today’s demand. He cites Sprint in the US, which is delivering live NFL football games via streaming infrastructure. “With HSPA and LTE pushing capacity to even higher levels it does seem reasonable to assume that streaming can play a larger role in the future of mobile TV,” says MacKenzie. He admits that ‘broadcast’ – which for MacKenzie includes MBMS – could be justified as “an efficient way to deliver content to large audiences” and says that, “as the bandwidth boundary is pushed out further, both technologies will have a role to play: broadcast of  live content to large simultaneous audiences and streaming for the remaining content.” Motorola’s Eswara however warns that HSPA and LTE are not perfect solutions: “While advances such as HSPA and LTE certainly enhance capacity of carrier systems, video is a capacity-intensive service and those systems will still be spectrally challenged to enable unlimited video service. Spectrum cost and delivery cost to enable MBMS type services to meet unlimited demand for video scenario will be the hurdles for HSPA or LTE type networks. A hybrid of broadcast overlay and unicast for on demand would seem to be the optimal solution.”

At present bottlenecks exist in the backhaul networks and at distribution sites, says MobiTV’s Nortström. Technology does exist for optimising video transport in the backhaul and new, better and more cost effective technologies are constantly being developed to increase backhaul capacity, he says.
Jon Hambidge, chief marketing officer at IPWireless, whose technology is based on the 3GPP-approved Internet Multimedia Broadcast standard, feels that while LTE may provide six times the capacity of HSPA networks, even that will not be sufficient to deal with the future appetite for bandwidth if content delivery is limited to unicast. “Hence operators are all too aware of the necessity of offloading data-intensive multimedia traffic onto a broadcast network, and the need to deploy a solution today to meet this rising demand. IMB allows operators to leverage their existing spectrum to meet these bandwidth intensive applications and offer new revenue generating services at attractive cost points,” says Hambidge.

Available spectrum

MobiTV’s Nortström believes that as usage increases, live events and popular shows will have a huge impact on the network. However, MBMS, rather than over-the-air broadcast, could provide a solution. “This is where MBMS could become very effective. The problem with TV broadcast is that you have to run all channels in broadcast-mode whether or not there is anyone watching,” he says. “You are limited in the amount of channels you can distribute based on available spectrum and you cannot support on-demand and personalised content.”
According to Nortström, MBMS offers one very powerful quality, which is that you can choose to ‘switch’ channels in and out of ‘broadcast’ mode based on usage. This optimises the use of spectrum and is much more in tailored to usage patterns. When combined with HSPA and LTE – which provide more bits within the same spectrum – it will enable operators to greatly improve capacity. “From a purely financial perspective, these technologies in many cases are simply add-ons to a carrier’s existing infrastructure, and can be much more cost-effective than building a broadcast overlay network from scratch,” he adds.
The phrase ‘content is king’ has been much overused. However, when it comes to the future of mobile broadcast services, Are Olafsen, headend segment director at video technology company Grass Valley, believes it is apt. “We strongly believe that the content will determine the choice of technology and its deployment. Understanding the audience’s expectations, and building a solid business case around that, will be vital to support the roll-out,” he says.
There are now many successful mobile video deployments around the world. Orange in France has more than 1.5 million subscribers paying an average of €9 per month, generating €150m a year. Local content, music and live event reports such as sports, news and weather are all popular with end-users and as more and as more content is available via mobile devices, viewing habits will adapt to incorporate mobile offerings, according to Harris’s Anderson. “As mobile TV viewing tends to be additional minutes above and beyond the normal viewing habits of the user, watching their favourite programmes in new locations or time-shifted will enhance the user experience,” he says.

“We strongly believe that the content will determine the choice of technology and its deployment.”
Are Olafsen, Grass Valley

RealNetworks’ MacKenzie picks up on the point, explaining that today’s mobile video audiences seek a mixture of regular linear channels and short-form snacking (high-profile live events, sports or breaking news). These high-profile live events present different technology challenges for operators he says. Large simultaneous audiences drive demand for bandwidth. The technology decisions therefore focus on bandwidth control, redundancy, fail-over and monetisation of content. “Large simultaneous audiences, as for live sporting events or perhaps the most popular regular linear channels, drive demand for bandwidth and coupled with high mobile TV penetration rates make a case for broadcast technology. Conversely, regular linear channels and short-form snacking of user-generated or time-shifted content with smaller simultaneous audiences makes a case for streaming technology,” says MacKenzie. “However, networks such as HSPA and LTE create a larger area of overlap where either streaming or broadcast technologies are a good choice given available bandwidth and lower investment required for streaming. Today, the return on investment and bandwidth consumption patterns give streaming an edge.”
Stanfield at Envivio is also convinced of the intrinsic value of broadcasting live events to subscribers, but warns that if services are perceived as too expensive, or poor either in quality, reliability or content, they will not be successful: “If you offer compelling, high quality content at a reasonable price on a variety of popular handsets then you will get good subscriber growth,” he says. “If you combine the mobile offering as part of a three-screens strategy, the operator will be seen as a media company and broaden the company’s business.”

Any device

Motorola’s Eswara says that ultimate goal of operators is to facilitate content consumption ‘anywhere, anytime, on any device’. He adds: “It implies a content management solution independent of the access technology or device. It is more efficient to have one content management system (integrated single content management) to manage multiple devices to support delivery across multiple end-points for mobile consumption.”
As operators find themselves handling more content, the issue of managing all these assets will arise much as it did for broadcasters in the past. RealNetworks’ MacKenzie is convinced that the role of content management in the mobile eco-system involves an interdependent relationship between mobile operators and content providers. While some operators retain strict control over content and own the ingestion and publication process, others rely on content providers to manage these processes for them.
“An ingestion, publication and delivery platform must work well across multiple players within the eco-system to account for flexible models. There is mounting pressure on operators to provide an ‘open’ network, thereby allowing several content providers to publish content into the network. As this occurs, mobile operators are more concerned about monitoring content consumption,” he says. “In a streaming video model, sessions are closely monitored providing an opportunity to manage bandwidth usage, content consumption and user connections.”
Operators are also under pressure to enable direct access between content owners and subscribers, which in turn raises concerns for bandwidth consumption, content management and security.
Harris’s Anderson also sees something along the lines of a PVR function made available to mobile audiences: “With a linear content delivery approach in combination with DVR-style controls on the mobile device.  This would empower the consumer to record programming on their user devices and watch their preferred content whenever they want, wherever they want.”

Free-to-air

Diana Jovin, vice-president of corporate marketing at mobile broadcast specialist Telegent Systems questions the degree to which content should be managed by operators. “Where we have seen the most significant global uptake of mobile TV handsets is where consumers have had access to the same free-to-air content that they view on conventional television sets,” she says. “What we expect will happen over the next several years is that we will start to see blends of free-to-air and pay-TV content offerings.  In cases where pay-TV services are available, then selection of content and subscription access methodologies become important considerations.”
As operators look to technology advances to handle large volumes of content, multiple formats and built-in interactive functions, Anderson at Harris sees HTTP streaming capabilities coming to the forefront of format and bandwidth management strategies.

[icitspot id=”9949″ template=”box-story”]

“People engaging in HTTP streaming on the internet are experiencing the same scalability, robustness, smoothness and convenience features that users experience from traditional television today,” he says. “The adaptive bitrate capability is one of the best features [of this method] as there were many issues in the past due to a lack of adaptive bitrate client/server solutions.”
Whatever technology decisions operators make, their focus must remain the end user experience, says Olafsen at Grass Valley. From a subscriber perspective, the underlying delivery technology is irrelevant; they only care about the quality of the content received.  “The ability to create specific content for a range of formats in a cost-effective way has been the biggest breakthrough alongside network technologies,” he says. “Some operators have gone from ‘how to broadcast’ to ‘what to broadcast’ in a relatively short period.”

Tags: mobile tv