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Cellular Broadcast may fail again

It’s happening again! The excitement, business cases, discussion on how the technology has matured, lessons learnt from previous such rollouts, etc. Believe it or not, it’s happening all over again. LTE Broadcast TV (a.k.a. eMBMS) is coming to an operator near you, soon.

 

Back in 2006, when Release-6 of UMTS was released, MBMS (without the leading ‘e’) was being hailed as a great technology that would solve many of the ills that had been plaguing the Mobile TV rollout. For example, the biggest issue was additional spectrum that was required with any of the other Mobile TV Broadcast technology, was not a problem for MBMS. In case of MBMS (Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service), the spectrum of the UMTS channel (fixed 5MHz) could be dynamically partitioned to serve the regular Voice(CS) + Data(PS) traffic and the broadcast data. None of the other competing broadcast standards then like DVB-H, T-DMB, ISDB-T, CMMB and MediaFLO could offer such an advantage. Another big advantage with having 3GPP cellular broadcast standard (MBMS) in comparison to the competing technologies was that no additional hardware/chipset was required and there was no necessity for additional authentication and security mechanisms.

 

Even after many such advantages, MBMS never got off the ground. The simplest of explanations revolved around the limitation that UMTS channels bandwidth is fixed to 5MHz, which means only limited number of channels could be supported for Mobile TV transmission. Another reason was that the operators tried to do too much too soon and as a result their business case fell flat. This was a result of using Multicast to sell subscription services to the users who had very little or no experience of watching TV/Video. Let’s look at the broadcast and multicast concept in detail.

 

Unicast, Broadcast and Multicast

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In case of ‘Unicast’, the radio access network (RAN) has to setup a dedicated bearer with the cellular device and then transmit the broadcast video. This would defeat the purpose of broadcast as a dedicated bearer is set up with the device and the device is effectively using the data. This is not a preferred approach and used in extreme cases for the sake of continuity. If only a few users in the cell are watching the mobile TV then there could be a saving of bandwidth by letting each of these users have a unicast connection rather than sending all information using the broadcast. Unicast mode is also known as ‘one-to-one’ or ‘point-to-point’ (ptp) transmission. Normal video streaming (using Youtube, Netflix, etc.) is always using the Unicast mode.

 

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In case of ‘Broadcast’ mode, the transmitted information is available for every device to be able to view. Broadcast mode is also known as ‘one-to-many’ and ‘point-to-multipoint’ (ptm) transmission.

 

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‘Multicast’ mode is a special case of Broadcast mode where the information may be available for all users but could only be decoded / deciphered by a device that belongs to the multicast group. To belong to this group, the user would have to subscribe to the service beforehand by calling the operator or using some online website, etc.

 

While in case of 3G MBMS, all the three modes were supported, in case of LTE eMBMS (‘e’ stands for evolved), Multicast mode is not supported. To highlight the similarity with 3G MBMS, the abbreviation was not changed to eMBS.

 

High profile Mobile TV launches in the past

Over the last few years, many big players have tried their hands on Mobile TV. Here is a summary of a few of them:

 

MediaFLO: A very ambitious and bold Mobile TV attempt was made by Qualcomm when it launched its services back in June 2009. Initially it was sold by AT&T and Verizon but the users had to pay $15 for subscription per month. This pricing was reduced and there were also other discounts available for users to sign up to the service. Qualcomm also sold a standalone device with subscription and tried to partner for in-car entertainment systems. The main reason for failure was high subscription prices for limited content and lack of smartphone models supporting MediaFLO. We have to remember that this required additional spectrum and hardware (chipset) which meant additional subscription charges. This service was eventually shut down in early 2011.chart1-jan2014resized.png
chart2-jan2014resized.pngNOTTV: Japan has always been a trendsetter and a leader in technology. No discussion on Mobile TV could be complete without mentioning Japan or their leading operator NTT Docomo. Back in April last year, they announced that they have 680K subscribers to their NOTTV Mobile TV service after a year of launch (though they were expecting atleast 1 million). Each subscriber pays 420JPY (roughly $4/£2.5/€3) per month. One of the ways NOTTV was made appealing to the end subscibers was by providing original content that was only available here and was also archived so playback was possible too. Subscribers can also provide live feedback or answers to what was being shown thereby increasing participation and value over the traditional television.
China Mobile TV Service: China Mobile is another operator with clout and loads of subscribers. It has been pushing the Chinese mobile TV standard (CMMB – China multimedia mobile broadcasting), not only in China but in other parts of the world as well. Again, this requires an additional hardware and spectrum for the receivers to be able to receive the content. A report back from 2010 suggested that the number of users of this service were much less than expected and only a few of them were actually paying subscribers. China Mobile Hong Kong launched mobile TV services based on CMMB in Dec. 2011. CMMB based mobile TV is also being launched in Philippines this year.chart3-jan2014resized.png

 

Many other operators and other television & media companies have launched mobile TV services based on the streaming (unicast) model discussed above. While this may work in the short term, in the long term this is going to congest the mobile networks thereby impacting the traditional voice and data services. An easy option available with the operators is reduce the priority of the mobile TV data but this would mean the quality of experience (QoE) of the mobile TV subscribers would suffer and they may desert the services.

 

 

‘eMBMS’ as the saviour

Back in March last year, a top Verizon executive confirmed that they will be launching Mobile TV based on LTE broadcast technology, eMBMS, sometime in 2014. In June last year, Verizon is reported to have agreed a multiyear $1 billion deal with NFL for the rights to broadcast the games on smartphones. The deal though is only for the smartphones, not for the tablets. My guess is that it’s for any device that has a SIM card in it. eMBMS would make sense for broadcasting content such as live games to a wide audience without overloading the network.

 

AT&T doesn’t want to be left behind and its building its own eMBMS network on the old MediaFLO spectrum it bought off Qualcomm. In fact, if it reserves an entire 5MHz spectrum available nationally for eMBMS, it can use the alternative eMBMS configuration of 7.5KHz channels (rather than the regular 15Khz channels) which could result in more channels being available and also better performance.

 

Finally, the Australian operator Telstra recently conducted LTE-Broadcast (eMBMS) trials over its commercial 4G network, broadcasting several sport events and even a file download to several mobile devices over the same wireless transmission. Qualcomm and Ericsson, who partnered Telstra in these trials, believe that they have found the right model to make broadcasting work.

 

Do users want Mobile TV

The short answer is, of course they do. I remember being told many years back about this survey where the users were asked if they would want TV on their mobile and if they would prefer to pay for that. The answer was a resounding yes. The only problem with that survey was that nobody asked the respondents what they understood by Mobile TV and how much would they prefer to pay. Over the last many years I remember asking people I meet in various works of life the same questions. The most common answers I get are; Mobile TV is like Youtube or iPlayer and the maximum about anyone would prefer to pay is £2($3). I am sure this is not what the operators expect. In fact in this day and age where the Freemium model is being used for Apps and services, are the users not going to expect the same from any Mobile TV offering. Maybe some users wouldn’t mind paying extra in a bundle offering.

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The above picture from the Adobe’s digital Index team highlights the important point that users still prefer watching video on tablets, rather than the small smartphone screens.

 

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This picture above from Business Insider article early last year highlights the difference in viewing habits with smartphone and other kind of devices. Frankly, I am surprised by the number of users on the smartphone watching video longer than 10 minutes.

 

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Another piece of statistics from an eMarketer article, also from early last year, shows that the top three kinds of content for both smartphones and tablet users were movies, user-generated content (such as YouTube videos) and TV shows. But the difference lies in emphasis: Tablet viewers were much more likely than mobile phone viewers to prefer feature-length movies and TV shows. Mobile phone viewers were more likely to watch user-generated content.

 

It is important to highlight that the span of attention and the patience required watching lengthy content on smartphone is a tricky job. Mobile TV is exactly what smartphone users don’t want.

 

There’s still hope for eMBMS and Mobile TV

I have tried my best to reason why Mobile TV on smartphone may be difficult to succeed. Tablets are becoming increasingly the main means of watching lengthy videos but most of them are Wi-Fi only. Two simple ways in which Mobile TV uptake may get a boost would be to have unique content, tailored for smaller screens and to have similar content being broadcasted on other connected devices like tablets, regardless of whether they are Wi-Fi only or support cellular access. Without allowing these alternative devices to receive Mobile TV, eMBMS may suffer the same fate as those of MBMS and MediaFLO.


About the Author

Read other blog posts by Zahid Ghadialy here

Follow Zahid on Twitter @zahidtg

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The articles presented here are blog posts from members of our Service Provider Mobility community. Deborah Strickland is a Web and Social Media Program Manager at Cisco. Follow us on Twitter @CiscoSPMobility.

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