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Broadcast Video Will Soon Be Packed into Smartphone Signals

Putting broadcast signals within LTE mobile network technology could open up bandwidth and disrupt business models.

If you want to watch video on your phone or tablet, you’ll find that many networks can’t always serve up the data fast enough. So your choices are either to find a Wi-Fi hotspot, take your chances on congestion and high data charges on a cellular network, or plug in a special dongle that picks up TV broadcasts (see “Broadcast TV Aims for Your Smartphone”).

Early next year, an emerging wireless technology known as LTE Broadcast could change all that, essentially making it possible for carriers to put a TV-like broadcast stream within LTE cellular signals.

Putting data in broadcast mode reduces congestion but makes the most sense in situations where everyone is watching the same newscast, sports match, or other special piece of content at the same time. In such situations, using LTE Broadcast mode, a carriers’ transmitter needs to just send a signal out over one channel rather than separate ones for each mobile device. That’s how the traditional TV broadcast works: it doesn’t matter if 100 or a million people are watching, because the content is out there for the taking.

The software in a carrier’s base station can tweak the LTE signal to include one or more channels that work in broadcast mode–enabling multiple users to receive the same content at the same time.

Carriers have made no announcements on what precise services may emerge. But there are hints at potential business models: Verizon’s CEO, Lowell McAdam, has publicly stated an interest in using LTE Broadcast technology for the 2014 Super Bowl and other live events on an à la carte basis to mobile customers. In such circumstances, a user would pay a fee to get access to the event; from Verizon’s point of view, they’d just have to send it out on one signal, making it a huge revenue source without taxing the network.

Any such effort by Verizon would be the leading edge of wireless carriers getting increasingly into the TV game and disrupting the cable TV model. And as mobile carriers implement the platform, some obvious first applications could be new ways to increase network capacity during peak demand occasions—like big sports games or breaking news—by carrying those on the broadcast frequency.

“It makes sense because there are a certain number of applications that clog up the wireless networks, particularly video streams. If people are watching live video or online sports, it will make more sense to use the broadcast stream,” says Dipankar Raychaudhuri, director of the wireless research lab at Rutgers University.

Chipset maker Qualcomm says that a chip and software package for LTE Broadcast will be commercially available in early 2014. “It provides them the flexibility to customize their offerings—including broadcast services, with better quality to the user, without taxing the data network,” says Mazen Chmaytelli, senior director of business development at Qualcomm Labs. Ericsson and other vendors are also offering software upgrades to base stations for mobile operators that want in.

Video traffic on mobile devices is already dominating network usage; Cisco has predicted it will take up 90 percent of mobile traffic this year. And devices are getting larger, faster, and higher-resolution, leading to ever-higher demand. “I don’t think we will see broadcast TV surviving in its present form in 15 years,” Raychaudhuri says. “It gets eventually replaced broadly by wireless and Internet content. And the broadcasters want to use new technology to offer on-demand content as well as broadcast content.”

The technology does require carriers to use the latest wireless standard, known as LTE, which is still rolling out around the world. But AT&T, for example, expects that LTE will reach 300 million people in North America by late 2014. Already, other proposed advances to LTE will greatly boost bandwidth with new tricks like sending multiple signals to multiple antennas on future phones (see “LTE Advanced Is Poised to Turbocharge Smartphone Data”).

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