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Broadcast TV Aims for Your Smartphone

Two groups are preparing services that will deliver television signals to mobile devices.
September 27, 2012

Dozens of players within the U.S. broadcast industry are behind two parallel efforts to make iPhones or iPads double as conventional television sets. The plan is to upgrade broadcasting infrastructure to beam out mobile-ready signals.

A consortium called Dyle TV—representing 18 broadcast groups, including Gannet, Hearst, Fox, Univision, and NBC—is farthest along in upgrading broadcast networks; it has completed upgrades on 90 TV stations, representing portions of markets covering 55 percent of the U.S. population. Dyle TV is expected to launch a dongle sometime later this year that can be affixed to the accessory port of iPhones or iPads.

A second joint venture, Mobile500, represents much of the rest of the TV industry, with 437 stations, only 16 of whom have upgraded their networks. This group plans to launch a study October 1 of how people use the service—handing out dongles to 1,500 consumers in Seattle and Minneapolis, where several stations have upgraded.

In both cases, the dongles, now being manufactured by Elgato and Belkin, receive live TV broadcasts from the stations involved in the consortia. For broadcasters, this requires sending a simulcast over a new signal inserted into the regular TV spectrum. The new signal is required because conventional ones can’t work in, for example, moving cars.

The dongle is expected to sell for around $100, but Dyle TV says the service will initially be free. Later, users will likely have to pay as part of cable or satellite packages or as a standalone subscription, requiring them to authenticate through the app for the dongle to work. The Mobile500 model would likely work in a similar way.

While the effort is still in its infancy, the approach has a key advantage over LTE networks. No matter how well LTE networks perform at delivering bandwidth to millions of video-hungry consumers toting the newest smartphones, there will be times when the system inevitably chokes, such as during breaking news events. That’s where conventional TV broadcasting shines: though you’re limited to viewing the content they air, the signal is available to all—even if millions want to tune in.

 “We’re not going to say people will use live TV as much as on-demand content,” says Salil Dalvi, co-general manager of the Dyle venture, and also a senior vice president of NBC Universal Digital Distribution.  “But what we do as a broadcast platform is to take wide demand content—such as the Today show, and other content that everyone is tuning into at the same time—and deliver it in the most efficient way possible.”

The service is already available in one device—an antenna-equipped Samsung Galaxy Lightray sold by Metro PCS. In addition, the vehicle aftermarket company Audiovox is also supplying the technology for rear-seat entertainment systems.

The approach has promise, says Dipankar Raychaudhuri, who heads a wireless research laboratory at Rutgers University. LTE and 3G capacity is not nearly large enough to serve as a wholesale replacement method for broadcast TV, he says. 

And depending on how people use a new generation of LTE-enabled smartphones, data crunches could materialize. That’s why the TV approach would help. “There is a very important advantage of scale here in the sense that you could reach 10,000 to 100,000 subscribers in one metro area without tying up cellular networks,” he says. By contrast, individuals downloading to 10,000 devices would consume as much as 10 gigabits per second from carriers’ base stations. But whether the services take off depends on how many people want to get local news and live sports on their phones, he says.

The efforts have been a long time coming. One stumbling block has been that broadcasters often must negotiate a new set of programming rights for the underlying shows, says John Lawson, executive director of the Mobile500 group. “It is taking longer than any of us hoped, but it does seem to be moving forward,” he says. 

For now, the two groups are focusing on making one dongle for Apple devices; future dongles might be offered for the wide variety of Android phones and others having connection ports of different shapes and sizes.

In the broader battle to reshape TV, companies including Google and Apple are working on solutions (see “Searching for the Future of Television” and “Rumor: An Apple ITV in 2012.”) Syncbak of Marion, Iowa, for example, has set up a pilot project with 60 stations nationwide to stream TV over mobile networks. And in one of the more audacious moves, Aereo, based in New York City, has put tiny TV antennas in data centers and streams TV over the Internet to people who can tune individual antennas from their device. (Aereo is being sued for alleged copyright infringement. The litigants include NBC Universal and Fox, which are behind Dyle TV.)

Traditional broadcast TV faces a generational challenge, as younger people are more likely to consume on-demand content using mobile devices than they are to watch TV in the living room. But mobile network operators have their own challenges, as they scramble to fend off capacity constraints (see “Are the Networks Ready for an Influx of iPhone5?”). To cope with increased demand, carriers are adding transmitters, augmenting LTE with available Wi-Fi signals, and finding ways to cache popular content.

The TV industry has one structural advantage: while it costs roughly $10 billion to $15 billion for a carrier to roll out a new nationwide LTE network, the entire TV industry can upgrade to allow mobile broadcasts for less than $300 million, says Erik Moreno, the other Dyle general manager, and an executive at Fox.

Should the Dyle TV and Mobile500 model take off, innovation, or disruption, could follow. “If you fast-forward to a few years from now, you can envision an individual station not just offering this simulcast, but other content for mobile customers,” Moreno says.

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