Friday, April 04, 2008

Media Flos to Mobile TV

LG VX9400 MediaFLO enabled phone for Verizon.Television is pervasive. Once limited to high power over-the-air broadcasting, TV has been glomping onto other delivery mediums as fast as it can find them. First came cable channels that had no over the air equivalents. Then satellite, with its almost universal reach. Next, the Internet with clips on YouTube and IPTV feeds from network owned Websites. Now the move is to cell phones and other wireless devices for truly mobile TV.

The original approach to mobile video was downloadable clips using the cellular broadband networks, such as EV-DO for Verizon and Sprint. But cell phone network operators are running into the same limitations as Internet content delivery. The available bandwidth isn't high enough for really good real-time video presentation, and the sheer volume of packets threatens to bring down the whole network if the service truly catches on. What's been needed is a new delivery network designed for video from the ground up.

The leading candidate for that new network is Qualcomm's MediaFLO. Verizon Wireless started adopting it about a year ago and AT&T has just announced that it will begin service too. What's special about MediaFLO? First, it delivers its content using a different over-the-air channel than the cellular frequencies. Second, it's designed for real-time viewing at 30 frames per second to give a true live television experience. A typical screen size is QVGA (Quarter Video Graphics Array) at 240x320 pixels. Since mobile devices aren't likely to tote around living room sized video displays, a lower bandwidth is acceptable to provide a good viewing experience. MediaFLO needs just 300 Kbps per live channel.

The MediaFLO specification supports many possible deployment schemes, but the one that is winning out is the former UHF TV channel 55 at 716-722 MHz. It is part of the lower 700 MHz band sold to Wireless companies by an earlier FCC auction and offers licensed high power transmission with large coverage areas. With 50 KW of effective radiated power and a 6 MHz bandwidth, MediaFLO transmitters can provide up to 20 live mobile TV channels with stereo sound over a substantial service area.

Another advantage over IP and cellular broadband delivery is that FLO TV service is multicast, like regular television. That means that the same bandwidth is used regardless of how many viewers there are. Internet based services usually need a certain amount of bandwidth for each user, especially for last-mile delivery. The FLO in MediaFLO stands for Forward Link Only to designate that this is a one-way transmission system.

A typical MediaFLO enabled cell phone is the one being sold by Verizon. It's 320x240 pixel high resolution color display (262,000 colors) rotates from portrait style when used as a cell phone to a landscape mode for TV viewing. You pull up a 5 inch TV whip antenna when needed to get a strong signal. This phone also supports Verizon's V Cast video services using the EV-DO cellular broadband system with up to 700 KHz download speed.

Another MediaFLO phone for Verizon is the Samsung SCH-U620, the first one offered by Verizon for mobile television. This is a slider phone with a similar screen size and V Cast capabilities. Plus all the usual niceties such as streaming Bluetooth and a Megapixel camera.

AT&T is planning to offer two cell phones of its own that will be MediaFLO enabled. They are the LG Vu and Samsung Access.

MediaFLO is aggressively marketing its technology and adding content that now includes CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, FOX, MTV, NBC and Nickelodeon. Coverage is still limited to major metropolitan areas, but the fierce competition that will no doubt ensue between AT&T and Verizon will likely result in additional transmission sites as cell phone users get comfortable with bringing their TV programs with them. Mobile television seems like an idea whose time has come, much like iPOD music on the go and cell phones themselves. With the completion of the 700 MHz spectrum auction, it will be interesting to see what other video and TV options become available using MediaFLO and competing technologies.

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