Free mobile phone video – carried over audio?

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It could be evil news for mobile phone companies if the idea catches on; but it does look as if Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) technology can now make it feasible to watch TV on your cellphone.

This might well sound like the daftest idea since self-assessed taxes: broadcasting video to mobile users over digital audio broadcast technology. But that's what Radioscape is demonstrated last week, at the NAB show in Las Vegas.

Using only 150Kbits per second, full motion video was streamed from the UK over satellite, then re-broadcast in Nevada and received on a personal computer using RadioScape's software-based DAB receiver card. Perhaps the most important aspect would have been the low power requirements of the Radioscape receiver: mobile phones have to be very stingy with battery capacity.

The demonstration was done jointly with Microsoft, NTL Broadcast and Tandberg Television; and Radioscape, designers of the silicon and producers of the software that makes it possible, described this as "the next key advance for DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) technology."

The material was broadcast video content from CNN. It was encoded using Windows Media 9 - and DAB audio content from Capital Radio Group was IP encapsulated and multiplexed using RadioScape Digital Radio Infrastructure products.

The stream went through a satellite uplink from the UK and was then rebroadcast locally via DAB.

The demonstration also included portable applications with streaming video to a PDA sized screen using only 64K Bits per second.

Data over DAB on the move was demonstrated using an HP Compaq IPAQ PDA with an Etheractive DAB datacard sleeve.

"DAB is perfectly suited for portable devices as it can provide a very low cost means to access video and data anytime, anywhere making it a key technological advance for innovative products that are being designed for tomorrow’s digitally-connected, mobile society," was the official quote from John Hall, RadioScape’s CEO.

Because DAB uses relatively little power with low processor requirements, it is "ideal for mobile applications that want to access the huge explosion of television programming, which is currently only available via cable or a satellite dish," said Hall.

First products are likely to be hand held PDAs and dedicated video devices, but not for some time - this is for demo purposes only, at the moment. However, it does open up the prospect of cutting out the mobile carriers for the most popular of their current dreams - of sending expensive MMS video clips of sporting highlights, like football goals or motor racing incidents, to subscribers.

Broadcast technologies, remarked a Radioscape spokesman with devastating innocence, "provide a simple and cost effective method for receiving both video and rich data." Bet that came as a surprise to the assembled broadcasters.

But Radioscape is doing its best to make this seem like good news for the mobile operators. "Combined with conditional access, this could open up new revenue options for them," said the company. "One of the advantages of the RadioScape DAB solution is the flexibility of its end-to-end software defined radio approach. Through this RadioScape can quickly bring new technologies such as video to market with the entire end-to-end capabilities required for a broadcast quality service."

This isn't all marketing hype, however. The involvement of Microsoft and Windows Media 9 is crucial to this; Microsoft is attempting to make itself the hub through which all copyright is protected.

Windows Media 9 innovation is almost entirely based around digital rights management (DRM) options - encrypting media so that only those who have a key can unscramble it. Microsoft's codecs are, admittedly, as good as anybody else's, and perhaps better in many respects than most; but it is its fond belief that copyright owners will switch from all rival software when they find they can control who receives it.

RadioScape predicts that the initial demand will be in the Asia Pacific region where, it says, the culture of listening to radio is less established but video is very popular.

Comment: The copy protection dream springs eternal in the hearts of technologists.

All the evidence is - and always has been - that media which is made freely available, is the most popular. Music which gets radio air-time gets to the top of the pop charts. Groups which release sample tracks in MP3 format are the ones who get the gold disc awards - and the revenue that goes with it.

Even Microsoft itself came to dominate the application software business, not by just out-featuring its rivals, but by forcing all PC makers to include Microsoft Office and Works as standard on every computer made - simply by virtually giving it away (at a time when Lotus 1-2-3 cost several hundred dollars, Works could be obtained, bundled, for around $90.00).

Nonetheless, the bean-counter dream - of having ultimate control - is unquenchable. Despite the disaster of "regional control" attempts on DVD, Hollywood and the music studios remain convinced that all they have to do is come up with a truly "uncrackable" DRM package, and they will become absurdly wealthy.

RadioScape may be proudest of its skills at creating software solutions but much of its revenue comes from the fact that it designed the DAB software stack that is used by Texas Instruments in its DRE200 DAB receiver chip. You could call this copy-protection, or you could see it as a profitable "bundling" deal - but either way, it will encourage others to interpret this move exactly the way they want to. And the big media owners want to believe in copy protection.

In the end, however, someone is bound to discover that viewing figures are highest if you don't charge to "unlock" media on a phone, and most streaming video will be free, and self-promotional.

RadioScape is headquartered in London, England, and has an office in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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