Let’s clear up a few things right away: 1) DTV is not HDTV, and 2) if
you are a reader of Engadget, your TV is not likely to go black once your friendly government pushes the big red button
labeled “analog switch off.”
See, HDTV is simply the highest quality format of digital television --
that “D” is for definition, not digital. Your digital broadcaster may in fact choose to broadcast in
Standard-Definition (SDTV) format which offers an equivalent pixel resolution as the best analog signal, but allows
broadcasters to squeeze more channels down the same analog TV pipe. Broadcasters could also enhance the quality a bit
to EDTV (Extended-Definition, similar to DVD resolution), or, god willing, throw down that good HDTV fix we’ve
all got the jones for.
Ok, that’s a bit more clear, now how about your TV’s viability after the
analog switch off? Well, that old Emerson boob-o-tube you watch while bleeding pigs in the barn might have some trouble
only if your Hee Haw reception requires adjustment to the rabbit ears. However, if you’re pumping a cable or
satellite signal into that old set then the accompanying set-top box provided by Cablevision, DirecTV, etc. is already
doing the analog-to-digital signal conversion for you. Oh, and if all else fails you’ll likely be able to appeal
to GeeDub or other governmental body for a free signal convertor. After all, they stand to make billions (and billions)
in revenue as they auction off the reclaimed analog spectrum which sits in the wireless sweet-spot — offering low
transmitter density due to long signal propagation while avoiding the worst effects of man-made
Analog TVs will also continue to work with cable, satellite, VCRs, DVD players, camcorders, video
games consoles and other devices for many years to come. However, at some point you’ll have to throw down for a
swank new digital television if you really want to explore your favorite starlets in all two million pixels of pockmarked glory. By 2007,
it will be tough to find a new analog set in the US since by then the FCC will have mandated the inclusion of digital
tuners in all new TVs larger than 13-inches.
Oh, and one more thing — that sweet, sweet digital TV
we’ve seen on those Korean cellphones does not run
over 3G. Mobile DTV is broadcast independently of the existing carrier signal. See, mobile DTV solutions offer a
one-to-many broadcast service (i.e. digital terrestrial broadcasting) whereas 3G and other cellular technologies are
one-to-one solutions. Even UMTS’ Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (MBMS) can easily become overloaded when
broadcasting popular video programs. Not that this is really an issue since voice and data is going to fetch far more
revenue per minute per subscriber than video anyway. If you really want to broadcast the evening news to rush hour
commuters, then 3G just ain’t gonna cut it. And unless you live in Japan, mobile DTV handsets require a separate
broadcasting standard from that which pumps DTV into your living room TV, at least if you expect your battery to last
more than a few minutes.
Besides superior picture quality
and your irrational lust for the latest-and-greatest, DTV consumers also stand to gain all the CD quality sound,
on-demand-video, and digital broadcast content we sick TV lovin’ bastages could ever hope for. Likewise,
DTV’s ability to deliver data enables broadcasters to provide sophisticated, web-like functionality overlaying
programming as well as rich, IMDB-like electronic program guides -- you know, the good stuff required before committing
to two-hours of a made-for-TV movie (even if it is “based on real life events”). The options are thick and
will just keep coming as those analog frequencies become available for reuse, bringing to market the advanced wireless
consumer services we crave and improvements in public safety
services we need.
As already mentioned, governments stand to make mad fists of cash as they reclaim and then
auction off the analog spectrum. The US sale should generate anywhere between $10 and $30 billion with similar
cha-chinging sounds resonating from Europe. Makers of DTV set-top boxes like Philips and Thomson are already doing
booming business with Nokia and others testing the waters as well. And let’s not forget conventional broadcasters
who see the opportunity to diversify and sell more ads. And when DTV goes mobile in 2006, even cellular operators will
get in on the action.
Of course, all this goodness comes at a price. Standards must be agreed under intense
political lobbying, broadcast frequencies must be allocated in an already very crowded radio spectrum, and then
there’s that small matter of paying to replace the analog production, transmission, and reception equipment
required for full digital implementation. Oh, and expect to operate DTV and analog TV services in parallel for several
years during the cutover.
And the economics of DTV are still risky — are viewers willing to pay more for
extra lines of resolution, and more importantly, do they really want to receive TV on their cellphones? Well, the
industry is counting on you to squint dutifully into your cellphone for several minutes at a time with research firms
like Juniper estimating that as many as 65 million people will tune-in globally by 2010 — each prepared to
fork-over a fixed fee of about $5-10 per month. The draw: sports, weather updates, news briefs, and all the latest
social intercourses for your afternoon commute consumption.
But if the carrots of higher quality television and
mobile reception aren’t enough to convince peeps to switch, there’s always the stick. Big-mama governments
everywhere are setting hard switch-off dates into law by which analog broadcasts must cease. These dates range from
2006 for the Netherlands to well, like-forevah for countries still weighing the benefts vs. cost vs. demand vs.
available standards. Yes, like any good standard…you have several substandards to choose from.
Fortunately, the standards battle for bringing digital
TV into your home has pretty much been fought and won. Yeah, you may not be happy with your country’s selection
(cough, USA) but at least we can get on with the teevee bidness in the living room. However, the landscape is not nearly so tidy
in the fight to bring TV to mobile devices like cellphones.
See, DTV reception must cover two primary
audiences: fixed devices inside buildings that have ample power and rarely move, and
those mobile handheld devices powered by batteries (cellphone / PMP / laptop) that might be
in or outdoors, or even travelling down the autobahn. As such, we have either fixed or mobile handset
broadcasting standards which require a bit of explaining. So, let’s bump uglies with these two technologies awhile
Let’s start easy by
talking about digital broadcast standards targeting fixed reception devices, since these decisions are pretty much set
in stone for those blooper-loving first-world countries. At the moment, North America and South Korea are on-board with
Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and pretty much the rest of the world (besides Japan) has gone Terrestrial Digital Video
Broadcasting (DVB-T). Japan has chosen to go it alone with Terrestrial Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting
(ISDB-T), which they are not pushing as a global standard even though Brazil has shown interest. Here’s a very
high level summary of those standards head-to-head.
Not much sense in going into why each country selected which. Let’s just say that DVB
is European developed and ATSC patents holders reside in The States… ‘nuff said.
Mobile Handset Reception
If you’re a fan of format wars a la Betamax vs. VHS or more recently, Blu-ray vs. HD DVD then you’ll love what’s
coming with mobile DTV. In one corner, we’ve got the DAB (Digtal Audio Broadcasting) boys teamed up with South Korea’s
Samsung, LG, and HTC manufacturing muscle pushing the Terrestrial
Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (T-DMB) standard, while Nokia, Motorola and others are staunchly backing Digital Video
Broadcasting for Handhelds (DVB-H) in the other. This battle is going to be big for broadcast digital video… the
way that children think of God as big.
Nokia is making it absolutely clear that they are committed to
making DVB-H the global standard. They claim DVB-H is in pilot in about 40 countries
worldwide — er, we found 15, and some of those are completed already but you can define “pilot”
pretty broadly these days a la Google and “beta.” Nevertheless, Nokia equips nearly all
these pilots with their own 7710 handset and
are also developing an end-to-end IP-Datacasting (IPDC) service (available to the pilots) which schedules and processes
the incoming video and audio services and transforms them into a DVB-H signal. With their recent launch of the N92, they have even started taking public shots at DMB saying
“we think DMB is going to be Korea-based from here to eternity.” In fact, you’ll hear a lot about
DVB-H being the ”European standard” especially if you listen to Nokia execs.
True, it is the ETSI (European Telecommunications Standard Institute) mobile TV recommendation for Europe with the
keyword here being “recommendation” — ETSI recommendations are not compulsory. Hell, DMB is also an
ETSI standard for mobile TV. As such, countries can still do as they please, and they are.
But this isn’t just a two horse race, particularly in the US where Qualcomm is coming up
hard on the outside with their MediaFLO mobile DTV offering.
They are already busy testing and deploying the $800 million MediaFLO network across the nation in Qualcomm’s 700 MHz spectrum, which they purchased
from the FCC for an additional $70
mil. Volume shipments of FLO handsets are expected next year as Qualcomm begins its commercial rollout in partnership with Verizon. The next natural step
then, is for Qualcomm to start stamping out chipsets and license the technology to their CDMA buddies in Asia and go after the standards-lovin’
GSM boys in Europe all over again.
And as we already mentioned, Japan has their ISDB-T digital broadcast
solution which also covers
mobile and handheld devices nicely but will remain an exclusively Japanese phenomena — nothing new to see here, so we’ll
So let’s take a look at the biggies side-by-side with one caveat: there is
enormous disagreement regarding the differences in these technologies. This is only further exasperated by the particular
frequencies governments allocate for broadcasting (affecting handset antenna design, transmitter density/coverage, interference, etc) as well as
limitations introduced by sub-optimal handset designs (Nokia 7710). One thing is certain — MediaFLO was designed
specifically for mobile DTV handset reception whereas T-DMB and DVB-H are modifications to existing technologies to
make them suitable to the task. However, as we well know, the best technology
rarely doesn’t always
That's a good amount
for today -- come back tomorrow and we’ll look at implementation status on a global
scale. So stay tuned, as they say!