Local Mobile Television: The Handset Is The Message

04/18/2008 10:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) held their annual convention in Las Vegas this week and, aside from the usual angst about the digital transition next February, there was a moderate buzz about mobile TV.

In his opening keynote address, David K. Rehr, president of the NAB, opined about a time, in the very near future, when digital broadcast television signals would be available on mobile handsets, "That's live TV on upwards of 345 million devices," he said. "That's your favorite morning show live on your handheld device on the bus to work. That's the baseball game keeping your boys quiet in the back seat of the car. That's not missing a college basketball game during March Madness, because you can catch it on your cell phone." He went on to speculate that this could mean $2 billion in revenue by 2012.

I am going to resist lowering myself to the use of pejorative quips such as: "I'd love the phone number of David's drug dealer, so I can get the stuff he's smoking." And, I am going to refrain from any kind of personal attack because I really like David and I know he wasn't trying to mislead anyone.

However, there's no way anyone schooled-in-the-art could make an even remotely credible prediction that you could have 345 million digital television ready (able to interpret and receive signals from local broadcast television signals) handsets in the market by 2012. It is not a probable future.

That being said, the biggest issue I have with this hugely optimistic prediction is that consumers have not demonstrated any meaningful demand for this type of product and there is really no business model to support it. Let's review.

First, the tech stuff. You can skip this part if you're not a technocrat, it will bore you to death. According to the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a group of over 800 television stations and media executives, the industry is considering three possible systems: MPH (Mobile-Pedestrian-Handheld) system jointly developed by LG Electronics and Harris Corporation; and the A-VSB system jointly developed by Samsung Electronics, Co. Ltd and Rohde & Schwarz; and a third system jointly developed by Thomson and Micronas (T/M). Their goal is to pick one, adopt it as an "industry standard" and deploy the required broadcast technology as close as possible to February 17, 2009 when television broadcasting in the United States goes all digital. This is good. Standards are good. Brandon Burgess, the president of the OMVC, is a very experienced, well-liked broadcast executive and I believe that he will get this done.

Now, just for kicks, let's take a quick look at one technical issue. Each broadcast station has been allocated 19.39 Mbps of DTV bandwidth which (after audio and other stuff) yields about 18 Mbps for the HD signal. Consider the HDTV formats 1080i and 720p. These are the most popular broadcast HDTV formats. Get out your calculator and do the following bit of math: 1920x1080x29.97x16 (for 1080i) or 1280x720x59.94x16 (for 720p). It doesn't really matter which you pick, in order to transmit it inside of 18 Mbps, you'll need to compress the information somewhere in the neighborhood of 50:1. If you want to add services like mobile TV, an additional weather channel, 24 hour news or sell data services to local businesses or a national aggregator, where will get the bits from? Right now, then answer is to degrade your HDTV signal. This is going to be a hard sell. Picture quality is important.

But I digress; Mobile TV isn't like broadcast TV. The screens are smaller and they are not usually in a 16x9 aspect ratio. The only way to create an emotionally satisfying product will be to reformat local television signals or, heaven forbid, actually produce content for the format. There will be no money to produce new content, so the consumer experience is guaranteed to be compromised.

Back to the bandwidth issue ... most people think of mobile television on handsets with relatively small screens, but that's not the future. Look at the screen on an iPhone or the 7" diagonal in the headrest of your SUV. Mobile doesn't have to mean microscopic. Bigger pictures will require more bits. Where will broadcast stations get them? You got it, by degrading their HDTV signals.

OK, enough tech. Let's talk consumer value proposition, unique selling principle and business model. Television is free. Which in our world means ad supported. This works fine for broadcast television and it will work fine for broadcast mobile television. But - local television does not sell ratings, they sell spots. An immeasurably small local mobile audience will not significantly change the number of television households in a DMA. How will local broadcasters profit from the additional audience. Will they attempt to sell spots directly to the handset audience? Who will reformat the ads? Could a local advertiser, who can't afford to make a regular :30 second spot for themselves, possibly afford to create a :15 for ten different handsets? After all, the graphics on a spot created to be viewed on a 7" mobile screen will be unreadable on a 2" handset screen.

Then, there is the problem of deployment into the marketplace. Right now, Verizon sells dual tuner handsets featuring their VCast service and, in some markets, Qualcomm's MediaFLO. They charge $15+ monthly for these services. Consumer take rates have been moderate. This is not a "must have" technology or a service. It's a luxury feature and, it is probably priced too high. However Verizon is doing with their proprietary mobile services, they are unlikely to support a new product or service that they will undoubtedly view as competition to their value chain. Handset makers may be happy to make cell phones that are compatible with the new standard, but which carriers will offer their cell phone networks and retail outlets ... let me think ... nope, I can't think of one just now. I'm not going to say never, but this kind of coopetition is quite rare in the carrier business.

Last, but actually firstly, is consumer aspiration. Does anybody want or need local television burning up the battery in their personal communications device. This is a pretty significant problem. Battery life is measured in hours and tuners and LCD screens use lots battery power. This won't really matter for automotive applications or fixed wireless devices, but in the PDA/cell phone/handheld game or device world, battery life is everything. Have a look at some post-churn out interviews and you'll see a common theme. "I was watching a video on my cell phone and the battery died. I missed a text message from my girlfriend. That's not gonna happen again!"

In truth, there are a ton of interesting things you can do with the $70 Billion of free ATSC bandwidth that the FCC has given to local broadcast television stations. News, traffic and weather data services to automotive and GPS, addressable or dynamic advertising insertion, open Google-like marketplaces for local television advertising that can be digitally trafficked through a national exchange and even Mobile Television. But, it's not going to happen at scale within four years, it's not going to be the profit center that will save local broadcasting and it is not going to be an easy sell to content publishers, creatives, producers, advertisers or, most importantly consumers.

Kudos to Brandon Burgess and the OMVC. It will all start with an industry standard format. And, Kudos to David Rehr for firing up the crowd. The most important thing we can do as in industry is to get everyone thinking about how we can leverage and build infrastructure to profitably move content from creators to consumers.

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). He is the Vice-Chairman of the National Academy of Media Arts & Sciences an organization dedicated to education and leadership in the areas of technology, media and entertainment. Palmer also oversees the Advanced Media Technology Emmy® Awards which honors outstanding achievements in the science and technology of advanced media. You can read Shelly's blog here. Shelly can be reached at