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The Changing Face of TV

News Analysis By Robert Liu


Qualcomm efforts to launch its own multicast network took a major step forward with the recent decision by Verizon Wireless to deploy its proprietary MediaFLO platform. The announcement underscores the seismic changes that could grip hold of the TV world over the course of the next 12 months.

FLO (which stands for Forward Link Only) is a multicast technology developed by the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) innovator and delivered over the 700 MHz spectrum that Qualcomm currently owns. As part of the agreement, Verizon hopes to offer broadcast TV via MediaFLO as a complement to its VCast and BroadbandAccess on-demand video services in half of its EV-DO footprint by the fourth quarter of 2006.

While its unclear if Verizons existing VCast agreements governing on-demand content also applies to live broadcasts, Qualcomm is taking no chances. As a wholly owned subsidiary, MediaFLO has been hard at work negotiating its own relationships with media giants over the use of their content.

Its certainly critically important to the consumer what content is on the handset, said Jeff Lorbeck, senior vice president at Qualcomm and general manager for MediaFLO USA. Weve been talking to the content providers for a number of months. Weve been talking to virtually all major media brands.

But content rights are just one of several factors that could affect the rollout of mobile TV. And thats exactly why analysts like Linda Barrabee at Yankee Group predict we could be well into 2007 or beyond by the time cell phones start replacing TV sets.

At the end of the day, its about handset replacements. Youve got to go through the typical handset replacement cycles, the senior analyst explained. Of the 193.6 million cell phone users, less than one-half of one percent takes advantage of video multimedia content.

Barrabee believes handset makers and operators arent likely to throw their weight behind mobile TV until kinks like technological standards and network performance can be shaken out of the first-generation offerings. Qualcomms MediaFLO is positioned against a competing open standard called DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting for Handhelds), which Crown Castle International has opted to deploy in the 1.67 GHz band. Nokia, Motorola and Samsung (using Microsoft software) have already agreed to conduct trials using DVB-H.

During a recent phone interview with INTERNET TELEPHONY, Lorbeck argued that MediaFLO operates more efficiently because Qualcomm is permitted to transmit its signal at a higher power than Crown Castle. And even if power levels remained at a constant, lower frequency transmissions generally disperse to a wider distance than higher frequency transmissions. Those factors, in turn, translate to lower capital expenditures because fewer transmitters are needed for any given market using the MediaFLO platform.

Although it is too early to predict the outcome of this new battle, it is clear that mobile-TV has gained traction and is the focal point of many heavy hitters in the industry. The battlefield in the U.S. is clearly tilting toward Qualcomms favor given the simple laws of physics and costs, Deutsche Bank analysts recently concluded in a report on Fixed Mobile Convergence.

Complicating matters for Qualcomm, though, is the fact that it has been unable to fully gain access to the 700 MHz spectrum. A number of independent TV stations still operate at or around that frequency, Channel 55. (Remember UHF?) Qualcomm has been negotiating with station operators in various markets to take control of those airwaves.

In addition, DVB-H and FLO (as its name implies) are both examples of multicasting technologies and only permit data to flow uni-directionally. Carriers like Sprint are deploying mobile TV based on unicast technologies, which would allow the bi-directional flow of data permitting services like remote DVR programming.

DVB-H or other broadcast (as opposed to unicast) technologies are useful for providing a mass audience with live TV in order to prevent potential network bottlenecks, which may occur in future on unicast networks. They do not, however, facilitate interactivity or a return-path functionality which would allow commerce, voting or other two-way communication with a broadcaster, said Jason Taylor, Director of Corporate Communications, MobiTV. IT

Robert Liu is the Executive Editor of TMCnet, the news and information portal of Technology Marketing Corporation, and is a frequent contributor to INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine.

Roberts 15-year communications career spans from the print world to television and to the Internet. He has covered business and technology writing for Dow Jones, Bloomberg Business News, CNN, and Jupitermedias He has served as a producer at CNN, Headline News and A&E Television Networks. You may contact Robert at [email protected].

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