New technology could make mobile TV more accessible and affordable

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 9:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 9:18am

Mobile TV as a concept has struggled to ignite enthusiasm so far, but a new broadcasting technology could soon enable hyper-local news flashes, automatic downloads, full-time TV channels and multi-cast streaming at sporting events.

Past failures of mobile TV suggested that few want to pay a subscription fee for mobile access to the same TV channels they already watch (and pay for) at home, but this new attempt - which debuted in January in South Korea - uses a low-bandwidth - hence low-cost alternative technology. Although it's only available in certain parts of the country, the Olleh LTE Play service from Korea Telecom allows users to watch HDTV on a mobile device without putting much extra strain on mobile networks.

There are a couple of caveats. For now it only works on a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 device via an app especially created by KT and Samsung. Olleh LTE Play is also only available to subscribers to KT's LTE Advanced service.

However, the technology behind it has a distinctly universal appeal that's looking good for mass adoption in the long term. It's called LTE Broadcast, and it comes from Qualcomm, whose Snapdragon 800 processor graces almost all high-end Android-based smartphones and tablets.

More importantly, there is no data fee to watch the two HDTV channels that make up Olleh LTE Play, which is an industry first.

"The tech is seamlessly integrated into the LTE standard so the carrier doesn't have to have a dedicated radio network or dedicate any radio spectrum to this service," says Peter Carson, senior director of marketing at Qualcomm. Carson says that many mobile devices can be upgraded with LTE Broadcast capability - it's up to the carrier and the device manufacturers.

Unlike previous attempts at mobile TV, which all required a separate link between phone and a server, LTE Broadcast is a one-to-many delivery mechanism that sends out content en masse from each cell tower in the network. Content can be sent simultaneously to multiple phones without any disruption to the network.

"You can send rich video content to literally hundreds of thousands of people in areas with weak LTE coverage just by sending it once instead of sending the content hundreds of thousands of times," Carson says. "It drastically changes the economics."

Nor are we just talking about full-time TV channels.

"Network operators can either schedule the broadcast or assign TV channels dynamically as events occur," Carson says. That means breaking local news alerts, events-based television and even specific programming pushed into a device, though LTE Broadcast can also be used by operators, handset manufacturers and app developers to send out firmware and software updates to thousands of devices at once.

The cell-based nature of the tech makes sports stadiums particularly ripe for multicasting live streams from cameras around the arena. LTE Broadcasting was trialled in February at this year's Super Bowl in the US - where Verizon used a fleet of Note 3 devices to test the tech - and with Vodafone and Ericsson at a soccer stadium in Germany.

"We're involved in eight carrier trials in Asia-Pacific, the Americas and Europe … and we expect about three launches this year," says Carson.

Ultra HD 4K broadcasts could eventually be possible, too.

Ricky Wong Wai-kay's Hong Kong Broadband Network - having been denied a free-to-air licence last year - bought China Mobile's unpopular mobile TV service last year and plans to broadcast up to five channels over the internet if legal complications can be resolved, though the technology behind it is unclear. China Mobile's own attempt required a plug-in adapter be used with smartphones, which is thought to have put many people off.

If all goes well, the stuttering concept of mobile TV could become an affordable reality.