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Mobile digital TV poised for big moves in 2011

Sun., Jan. 2, 2011

CHICAGO — Rabbit ears on a mobile phone? Well, not exactly, but broadcasters and gadget manufacturers are working to beam live television to portable devices.

The broadcast industry has been developing mobile digital TV for several years, and a small number of stations are on the air, but the platform’s availability remains limited.

In 2011, the technology is expected to gain momentum as the Mobile Content Venture, a group of 12 major broadcasters, will be upgrading stations to start delivering mobile DTV in 20 markets covering more than 40 percent of the U.S. population.

In the initial rollout, viewers in metropolitan areas are scheduled to receive at least two free channels during the second half of 2011.

While portable television sets have been around for decades, the broadcast industry’s 2009 transition from analog to digital transmissions rendered most of those gadgets obsolete. With the advent of smart phones and widespread wireless connectivity, technology companies hope watching live TV will become part of consumers’ mobile diet.

The technical standard for the technology was formally adopted in October 2009, and about 70 stations in the U.S. will have launched mobile DTV by the end of this year, said Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition.

Mobile DTV piggybacks on the same digital signals that broadcasters use to beam programming to regular TVs. This means a consumer watching mobile DTV on a smart phone, for example, doesn’t have to worry about buffering or other issues that can snarl streaming video on a wireless carrier’s network.

The platform also enables live local TV, providing an alternative to on-demand mobile video services. With mobile DTV, depending on what stations offer, viewers may be able to watch local news or sports broadcasts in real time while on the go.

Despite industry enthusiasm around mobile DTV, the platform faces several hurdles in gaining widespread adoption. The quality and variety of programming could vary significantly between stations and markets, particularly if broadcasters have trouble negotiating rights for certain kinds of content: national sporting events, for example.

On a broader level, mobile DTV may not appeal to consumers accustomed to on-demand content, said Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

In a blow to the budding industry, chip-maker Qualcomm Inc. has decided to shut down Flo TV, a broadcast network service it created in 2004 for mobile phones, in the spring after failing to gain enough subscribers. At a November industry event, Qualcomm chief executive Paul Jacobs said that while live programming was popular, customers did not tune in at specific times to watch scheduled shows on their phones.

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