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Who needs 3G? 'Son of DAB' unleashes TV for phones

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3GSM This year's 3GSM 'desperate characters in search of a revenue stream' script had a lot to do with mobile video, and like most of these scripts it had a lot to do with shedloads of infrastructure plus a seasoning of wild optimism. 'We've got this 3G thing, apart from not having finished rolling it out yet,' the script runs, 'and we need something to show how great it is and to repay our vast investments. So um, music videos? Football highlights?'

In real life, you will have noted, such things are ordinarily available via broadcast, possibly involving passing a little money to the good people at Sky, but not always. Daft red 'interactive' buttons aside, the need for interactivity doesn't go a great deal further than the need to change channels or press the record button, and if you're reasonably on top of timeshifting then you're pretty much set. If, that is, you can get what you've currently got coming into your home TV system onto a mobile platform.

Which you can - now, or soonish. At 3GSM LG was showing a DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcast) handset that will go on sale in Korea shortly, while there are DMB trials scheduled for next quarter in various European countries. At the same time there's DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcast - Handheld), which will be on show at CeBIT next month, and there's also DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale, which is rather more interesting than you might conclude from its unfortunate acronym).

DMB springs from DAB, Digital Audio Broadcast, while DVB-H comes out of DVB-T. DRM at the moment is not about mobile platforms as such, but its primary purpose, a global standard giving AM, short wave and long wave broadcasters a way forward after the big switch off, might have interesting consequences in terms of range and robustness. Radio 4 Long Wave housing both cricket and the Archers? Wow...

DMB as evangelised by Nigel Oakley of RadioScape currently looks the most battle-ready as far as the handheld market is concerned. Through its digital radio technology RadioScape has had a great deal to do with the consumerisation of DAB in the UK, and with DAB already portable, DMB in phone handsets (not that they'd have to be phone handsets) is a logical progression in several senses. FM radio already comes as a 'free' piece of added value in some phones, so DAB now being a hell of a lot cooler, why not DAB, in the form of DMB? You could also view the radio roots as something of an advantage, given that we know people will listen to radio while they're moving, but we've yet to establish what the market for TV while moving actually is. Start with radio, and we'll throw in some multimedia?

DMB is an evolution of DAB, intended to cope with hostile conditions and mobility, and it has a couple of aspects to its sales pitch. RadioScape has been switching to triband modules, which means it'll be able to cope with 'roaming', and the modules are intended to be cheap (RadioScape is partnered with Texas Instruments) to make them attractive for consumer products, and to go into handsets as a no-brainer extra. DMB can also use existing broadcast infrastructure, so it needs neither the infrastructure of narrowcast nor the construction of new broadcast infrastructure. According to LG (NB, relation), DVB-H will require infrastructure investment, currently has a heavier power requirement and in LG tests produced 15 frames per second against DMB's 30. Plus it's a little behind DMB, and that on its own may be enough.

But if you think about the infrastructure advantage, you can maybe see it not being an advantage from some people's point of view. Au contraire... If you can only get content over one, subscriber-restricted channel (say, 3G), then you will be more motivated to pay a premium for it, and the companies who control the channel call the shots. So infrastructure is from their point of view money well spent, so long as they got their sums right. If however you have content providers who have historically put their stuff out via unrestricted channels coming into the market, then the subscriber-based channels at the very least face price competition.

We can maybe get an idea of the possibilities if we consider the recent trajectory of the UK TV market. With the arrival of cable and satellite, the analogue free to air channels became emaciated shadows of their former selves, and the stuff people actually wanted to watch moved over to the subscriber services. The rollout of digital terrestrial and the regulatory requirement for the continuation of free to air via digital terrestrial does however seem to be triggering something of a roll-back. Detailed scrutiny of The Register's cable TV bills appears to indicate that the business model is to charge a goodly sum per month for vast amounts of guff you don't want, and then when you see something you do want, to charge you for that in addition. This will not be sustainable as most of the guff (plus, bless, the BBC) is becoming available via free to air.

This, translated to a mobile platform, would likely result in a similar mix of free to air and pay per view/on demand. The latter need not be a 3G service either, because there's scope for premium channel payment and staggered start times on multiple channels. Broadcasters who've already figured out how they eat via free to air (yes, we know, they probably only think they've figured it out) ought therefore to be able to operate happily in the mobile market, while mobile phone companies will discover (d'oh) that they're not broadcast companies. But they do do broadband, and you know what? There's maybe a market for that. ®

Related links

Broadband a go-go: Orange goes mad on EDGE, TV, video
Digital Radio Mondiale
DVB.org
WorldDab Forum 3GSM 2005: complete coverage

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