The Qualcomm MediaFLO network is based on its FLO (forward link only) multicasting technology rather than digital broadcasting, and it will also accommodate the delivery of streaming content over 3G networks. FLO transmits in the 700-megahertz spectrum (UHF channel 55) and requires 30 to 50 times fewer towers than a cellular network. On the handset side, Qualcomm will announce a client chip for FLO in the coming year, promising playback at up to 30 frames per second.
The MediaFLO network, which will be developed and operated by a Qualcomm subsidiary called MediaFLO USA, is based on a push multicasting paradigm in which battery consumption is reduced by downloading video only during certain periods when the phone is not in use. With enough storage on the phone, users could interactively access an accumulation of content. The technology would also be able to integrate live broadcasting along with canned clipcasting content.
According to Rob Chandhok, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm, storage costs would not add significantly to handsets. The thing that is dropping in price the fastest on handsets is memory, he says. More important, says Chandhok, is the issue of battery life, a key reason why Qualcomm decided not to embrace the more ambitious DVB-H. Were going to be significantly better than DVB-H in terms of power savings, he says.
Both the Qualcomm and Texas Instruments technologies would permit synchronization with 3G data services running simultaneously on the cell phone to enable a miniature version of interactive TV. For example, cellular providers might pop up an interactive data window over a TV advertisement, letting users instantly purchase the product over the Web. Cellular providers may well support at least one of these new mobile digital video delivery technologies because they solve the bandwidth (and therefore, quality) limitations of cellular 3G services by simply bypassing them.
Yet, TIs projection that 70 percent of new phones will have digital TV capability within three years seems optimistic. First, having several competing standards is rarely promising for a fast take-off, and other contenders may emerge as well. Then theres the phone itself to consider: even if the cost of the TV chips is comparable to the expense of adding a camera, an MP3 player or Wi-Fi, all these capabilities add weight, cost, heat, and complexity while reducing battery life. There are still limits to the amount of circuitry that can be shared among these functions, and while memory prices are dropping, video is very demanding of storage. All of this adds up to a high-priced, short-battery life phone. Then, of course, users have to pay for the monthly TV charge (Sprint charges $10 for MobiTV).
While cellular providers are keen on adding services to boost their bottom lines, there are only so many directions that they and their customers can afford to move at once. All the competing applicationsphotography, music, games, data accessseem to be a better fit than TV is for the mobile realm. Cell phone users may occasionally find short periods of time to watch the tubelet, but the mobile experiencestill being primarily a professional oneseems more oriented toward on-demand clips than TV channel surfing. Few people have time to watch TV while on the move, and TVs have become so ubiquitous in public spaces that one of the hottest selling gadgets of late is a rogue device that turns off nearby TVs. By 2006, the rare moments that cell phone users will be inclined to watch video will also be the times that their Wi-Fi-enabled phones will be in range of a high-bandwidth Wi-Fi access point. And they may also be able to download the videos for later viewing when theyre back in 3G territory.
In short, dont be fooled by the mobile hypecell phone users may move around a lot, but at the end of the day they still veg out at home or in a hotel room watching a nice big TV (or big laptop monitor). Which brings us back to the size question. Two-inch handheld TVs have gotten dramatically better in recent years, and the digital technology from Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and others is likely to be even better. Yet, even if the resolution and frame rate improve, size matters in the TV illusion. At two inches, details are still difficult to make out, and its a hassle to have to sit and hold your TV in your hand. Even with a 3-inch screen (about the biggest thats feasible on a phone), people will watch it when the need arises, but its less likely theyll be hypnotized. That may be good for our souls, but not so good for the TV business.