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Digital Video Handheld B’casts To Air At CES

Digital TV is moving out of the home theater system and into cellular phones, PDAs, laptop computers, portable media players (PMPs) and cars here at International CES, where multiple companies plan to demonstrate Digital Video Broadcast-Handheld (DVB-H) technology and announce plans to support this year’s limited launch of DVB-H service.

DVB-H is an international terrestrial-broadcast standard designed from the ground up as a multipath-resistant, battery-friendly technology for small-screen handheld devices. It promises to broadcast multiple live TV channels, music channels and addressable podcast content to portable devices that people could watch while sitting, walking or traveling in a moving vehicle.

DVB-H will be implemented in Europe and Asia in spectrum abandoned by analog-TV broadcasters, but in the United States, cellular-tower operator Crown Castle plans to launch commercial service in select markets in 2006, including Pittsburgh and New York. The company will expand the network to the top 30 U.S. markets by the end of 2007.

During CES, the company’s DVB-H subsidiary, Crown Castle Mobile Media, is changing its name to Modeo and feeding content via satellite from its Pittsburgh user trial to multiple booths, where hardware companies plan to demonstrate DVB-H-equipped cellphones, PDAs, PMPs, laptops and car video systems, said Modeo president Michael Schueppert.

Some of the products will be production-ready devices available for Modeo’s commercial launch, and others will be early prototypes and proof-of-concept products, he said. Some of the demonstrated products will incorporate integrated DVB-H receivers, and others will be DVB-H add-ons that enable a consumer’s existing device to display DVB-H content delivered over the 1.6GHz band, he added.

The companies demonstrating DVB-H devices at CES are Intel, Kenwood, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia and Philips.

Through receive-only tuners during Modeo’s commercial launch, consumers will be able to tune into at least 10 channels of live TV at 15 fps to 30 fps in QVGA quality and at least 24 audio channels, Schueppert said. The company will also offer hundreds of podcast videos and thousands of podcast audio programs, updated on a daily or weekly basis. “We’ll offer a mix of the best old media and new media,” he said.

“It will definitely be a TV-quality experience,” Schueppert continued. “Some channels might require 30 fps to get that experience, and others can come down a little.” DVB-H and a competing technology, Qualcomm’s MediaFLO, are based on OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing), the standard used in DTV outside the United States and offering more multi-path resistance “than any other radio technology known to man,” he claimed. It’s “vastly better” than delivering live TV over cellular networks, he said. Combined with forward error correction and “some caching,” he said, “you will see a perfect signal.”

Modeo is “working with all the biggest names in content” to fill its channels, which will be marketed by cellular carriers on a subscription basis, although carrier partners won’t be announced at CES, Schueppert said. Modeo will use the cellular towers that it owns as well as cell towers that it doesn’t own to replicate the footprint of carriers’ 3G networks in its target markets. That means in W-CDMA and CDMA 1x EV-DO markets, DVB-H broadcasts will be available in urban and suburban areas but not in outlying rural areas, he said.

Modeo parent Crown Castle owns a nationwide 5MHz swath of unencumbered spectrum in the 1.6GHz band in the top 300 markets. It operates 11,000 cell towers nationwide, including towers in two-thirds of the top 30 launch markets.

Although Pittsburgh and New York will be among the first markets to launch commercially, Modeo won’t name the other markets that will be online in 2006 because launch dates depend on getting local zoning approvals to add equipment to existing cell sites.

Nor will Modeo make content agreements public until “weeks prior to the launch of service,” he said, because mobile content “is a fast-moving space” and because the company is continuing to learn about consumer’s mobile content preferences during trials. During the trials, he noted, Modeo found commercial-free music channels and news programs to be popular.

Modeo also found diverging consumer preferences for the type of device they want to use to watch programs. “Some people already have a cellphone and want one device that does it all,” he said. “Other people want a very small cellular phone and don’t mind carrying a separate portable media player. Other people carry their laptop everywhere and want to use that.” Still others prefer in-car back-seat video systems to keep the kids quiet. “No one size fits all,” Schueppert said.

Whatever the device, DVB-H won’t add much to its cost nor tax its battery, Schueppert claimed. “The power consumption of a DVB-H tuner and demodulator is so small, it doesn’t enter into the equation,” he said. The limiting factor, he said, “is the screen’s power consumption.” Most of the prototypes observed by Modeo deliver four hours of video playback time, enough for “realistic usage” partners of a half-hour per day, he said. Laptops will deliver slightly more video playback time, he said.

As for cost, DVB-H will add no more than $30 or $40 to the retail price of a product, he added.

Because Modeo service can be added at such a low cost to a PMP, he expects PMP suppliers to gravitate to the technology, which he called “critical to making the video device take off” because it will simplify consumer’s acquisition of video content. Currently, consumers must transfer video from a PC or record it directly from a TV. Paid-for a la carte downloads at $1.99 each, he added, isn’t a viable long-term business model because of its cost. “With music, most people are fairly happy filling a portable with the songs they love and listening to them over and over again. That’s not the case with video.”

With DVB-H, he noted, video podcasts can be pushed directly to portable devices day or night and be cached without affecting battery life because the screen could be off.