Broadcasts to mobile devices to start in 22 cities

Posted January 8, 2009 7:01 p.m. EST
Updated January 9, 2009 10:04 a.m. EST

— TV stations in 22 U.S. cities announced Thursday that they will start broadcasting their signals this year in a format designed to be received by mobile devices like cell phones, MP3 players, GPS units and in-car entertainment systems.

The Research Triangle area is not on the list of markets, however.

Capitol Broadcasting Co., parent of WRAL TV and Fox 50, chose not to participate in the initial rollout, according to Sam Matheny, head of News Over Wireless, which is part of CBC New Media Group. Capitol has experimented with mobile TV applications.

Unlike current mobile TV services, the broadcasts would most likely be free and would provide access to local news, weather and traffic updates. The broadcasts could also fill an important role in emergencies like hurricanes, since they can be received by portable devices and don't jam up under load like cell-phone networks.

But will there be any gadgets on the market that can receive those signals? That's less clear, since there are no firm launch dates for compatible products.

As with other launches of new broadcasting services, there's a "chicken-and-egg" conundrum, said Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for the Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. Without broadcasts, there is no market for devices. Without devices, there is no one to whom to broadcast.

"Broadcasters have come together and said, 'We'll be the chicken,'" Aitken said. "We'll put services out there without devices."

Though their marketing plans are not firm, manufacturers did show off prototype devices at the International Consumer Electronics Show here on Thursday that were able to receive trial broadcasts from two local stations.

LG Electronics Inc. of Korea, a major partner in developing the broadcast technology, showed off two prototype cell phones and a portable DVD player. Kenwood Corp., Delphi Corp. and Visteon Corp. are developing car-based receivers.

In getting cell phones with TV receivers into the hands of consumers, broadcasters face a substantial obstacle: the cellular carriers. The largest, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, sell phones that are compatible with a rival mobile broadcasting system run by Qualcomm Inc. It provides 10 channels for $15 per month.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition, the mobile TV broadcaster group, said it has had discussions with the carriers and expects there to be deals with at least some of them.

The 22 markets where "Mobile Digital TV" will be rolled out this year cover 35 percent of U.S. households, the OMVC said. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington and Atlanta are the largest participating markets. In total, 54 commercial network affiliates have committed to launching broadcasts. Another nine PBS affiliates are considering joining them, the OMVC said.

Mobile devices are unable to receive conventional digital TV broadcasts, which are designed for stationary antennas. But the OMVC is far from alone in tackling this problem, particularly when it comes to reception in cars.

Audiovox Corp. announced at the show that it will make an in-car receiver for Qualcomm's MediaFLO service. The receiver that will work with existing in-car entertainment screens will be available in eight to 10 months for less than $500, the company said.

There are 20 million U.S. cars with such screens, according to Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Audiovox.

AT&T and RaySat Broadcasting Corp. said they will start marketing a satellite TV system called CruiseCast for cars this spring, providing 22 TV channels and 20 radio stations for about $28 per month. It requires a bowl-shaped antenna with a suggested retail price of $1,300.

Lastly, Alcatel-Lucent and ICO Global Communications Ltd. were at the show to talk about their hybrid satellite-terrestrial broadcasting system, which can broadcast up to 15 channels to somewhat smaller antennas. They're hoping for a commercial launch next year, said Olivier Coste, head of Alcatel-Lucent's mobile broadcast division.

The satellite-based systems have the advantage of nationwide coverage, which terrestrial systems can't match. On the other hand, satellite systems won't have local channels that are useful to drivers.