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Communications

The Selling of Cell Phone TV

Qualcomm and Texas Instruments have unveiled two competing schemes for delivering video to cell phones that bypass 3G. Is the market big enough to get them off the ground?

Recent signs of trouble in the large-screen TV business suggest that there might be market-driven limits to how big a television set can be. Yet might there also be minimum size limits? Judging from two recent announcements on mobile video delivery, were likely to find out soon. First, Texas Instruments said that it plans to introduce a chip called Hollywood that will decode and display digital TV receptions using new mobile versions of digital television broadcast standards. TI claims that Hollywood-equipped cell phones, which should arrive in 2007, will be capable of displaying video at digital TV resolutions.

Then Qualcomm disclosed that it was spending $800 million to create a nationwide network called MediaFLO that should go online by 2006. MediaFLO will use new wireless frequencies bought last year by Qualcomm to deliver video and other multimedia content to mobile devices.

Both the Qualcomm and Texas Instruments technologies make it possible to offload video delivery from new third generation cellular networks and place it on dedicated video delivery networks. Considering that a big part of the 3G hype was the technologys ability to deliver video, this development is a bit ironic, to say to least. Its true that video of a sort has recently arrived on 3G. For the last few months, Sprint PCS Vision Multimedia Services has been offering as many as 600 video clips a day to PCS subscribers who own a special Samsung phone. In October, AT&T Wireless (now part of Cingular) formally launched its own multimedia service, which is based on the same wireless broadcast network used by Sprint: Idetics MobiTV. The drawback is that at best, the frame rate is six to 10 frames per second; users with older phones see one-frame-per-second video, which is more like a slide show. Generally, 10 to 15 frames-per-second rates are considered to be the lower limits necessary to create an acceptable illusion of motion, and the Qualcomm and TI technologies promise to offer 24 to 30 frames per second–the latter being the standard used by TV broadcasts.

A number of technological trends should get streaming cellular video up into double-digit frame rates within a few years. First, new video chips from Qualcomm and others have arrived this year that support the H.264 video format, which is designed to get the most out of lower bandwidth networks. Also, 3G speeds should gradually rise in the coming years to boost frame rates and overall quality. Yet the next-generation 4G technology and handsets that could deliver 30 frames-per-second video at digital TV-quality resolutions may be 10 to 20 years away. This is why Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and other companies decided to create parallel broadcast networks.

TIs Hollywood chip combines three TV chips into one and promises 24 to 30 frames per second playback of live video. It supports two emerging digital TV standards for mobile devices: DVB-H (a European-based standard now under trial that was developed by a consortium called the Digital Video Broadcasting Project) and a rival Japanese format called ISDB-T (Integrated Services Digital BroadcastingTerrestrial). Expected to be available by 2007, both formats use various techniques to reduce battery consumption compared to standard digital broadcasting technologies. For example, DVB-H (the H is for handheld), which was finalized earlier this year, temporarily shuts off tuner chips between broadcast burstsa technique known as time slicing.

Of the two formats, DVB-H seems to have more momentum in the United States. In October, Nokia and cell-tower operator Crown Castle announced they had begun trials of the technology in Pittsburgh. The DVB-H broadcasting equipment could operate either in conjunction with TV broadcasters standard digital broadcasting equipment or be run by cellular providers as a separate service from their 3G networks.

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.

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