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Mobile DTV Seen In Cars By 2010

Mobile digital TV, the expected live, free TV service to the car and handheld devices, could be available in automobiles early next year, possibly igniting a market for add-on tuners if the reception proves up to par.

To date, analog TV reception in the car has been so poor that the market was limited to a small number of RV and limo users.

However mobile DTV will offer a “perfect” picture vs. the “snowy” images of analog TV, and it will allow “full motion” reception at vehicle speeds above 100 mph, according to Mark Aitken, chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) for mobile handhelds.

The ATSC is expected to approve a standard for mobile DTV in the third or fourth quarter this year, at which time PC dongle tuners for notebook computers should become available, according to the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a consortium of broadcasters to advance the launch of mobile DTV.

Shortly after, tuners for auto TV screens are expected to ship to dealers to deliver over-the-air TV to the 20 million mobile video screens already in cars, possibly by the first or second quarter of 2010, said Kenwood VP new digital technology Mike Bergman, who is chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) special interest group for the technology.

The biggest draws of mobile DTV is that the service will be free of charge and allow the simulcast of hit TV shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “30 Rock,” “The Today Show,” “Mad Money,” “American Idol” and “Veggie Tales,” said the OMVC. Broadcasters vowed at International CES to begin transmission by at least 63 stations by the fourth quarter, reaching 22 markets.

No supplier has committed to producing the mobile DTV tuners for the car but Kenwood, Visteon and Delphi have shown the technology. Kenwood said it plans to offer some form of car mobile DTV products in 2010, and Bergman believes other suppliers will debut products at CES next year.

A ballpark price tag of $400 was the opening price for other initial tuners for HD Radio and satellite radio, but no price has been set for mobile DTV tuners, noted Bergman.

He said the technology bears much promise. “I think it will be fairly big … In this economy, the key word ‘free’ is so important.” Clarion marketing VP Adam Thomas also said the technology could create a “solid” rear-seat entertainment business if the reception is truly better than that of analog TV.

But car aftermarket suppliers are not yet convinced.

Alpine’s current tests have shown mobile DTV to be only slightly better than analog. According to marketing VP Steve Witt, “Moving vehicles go in and out of ‘good’ signal areas … Even the differences in vehicle designs … have an impact on TV reception … So far the performance is not acceptable to our customers.”

Aitken explained that by federal regulation a station can broadcast a signal to a distance of 60 miles, but he said many of the people in a given metro area should be able to receive a “perfect” picture. He acknowledged that a mountain range would impact reception and that 30 miles to 35 miles away from the tower, black holes in reception might occur, as they do in cellphone service. But he affirmed, “I think it will be phenomenal. It is crystal-clear digital, without the artifacts, ghosting [of analog].”

Like HD Radio, mobile DTV will also allow extra channels. Broadcasters may add approximately three more mobile digital channels while still broadcasting in HDTV, said the OMVC. So they might add car-friendly content like traffic information, or news and weather services, said Bergman, and even gaming programs are under consideration.

It is possible a broadcaster might air the “best of YouTube” as mobile DTV is expected to be compatible with Internet Protocol (IP), said Bergman.

Broadcasters might also offer video-on-demand programming for a fee, said the OMVC spokesperson.

A recent study commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters said mobile DTV service could reach 200,000 to 300,000 vehicles per year through 2012. The same study noted that car TV and cellphone use of mobile digital TV was about equal in Seoul, South Korea, where mobile digital TV has been available for several years. The service has proven popular in both South Korea and Japan, said the OMVC.

In the U.S., mobile DTV could bring in $2 billion in revenue for broadcasters by 2012, said Brian Lawlor, division senior VP for E.W. Scripps, whose TV properties include ABC and NBC affiliates. Broadcasters could enjoy greater advertising revenue through increased viewership.

A few other advantages of the service is it requires only a small 3-inch antenna about the size of a finger, and broadcasters can add repeaters if they want to boost the signal.

A drawback is the coverage will still be regional at the time of launch, with only about a third of homes with TVs in range of one mobile DTV station.

Mobile DTV is preparing to come to market at a time when several pay video services are due to enter the automobile including AT&T Cruisecast, Audiovox/MediaFLO and ICO Global Communications.

Winston Guillory, president of AT&T CruiseCast, said his service has the advantage of hitting the market a year before mobile DTV and launching with a nationwide footprint from day one. It should be noted that CruiseCast customers will pay a suggested-$1,299 for the car equipment and $28/month in service fees.

Both CruiseCast and ICO services are looking at adding mobile DTV reception as a complement to their service.