Contemporary historians credit TV dinners with changing the way people consumed both their evening meals and television. Now, the fast food generation is being prepped for some lighter fare using nontraditional screens to watch traditional and, of course, nontraditional television. Mobile TV is on the horizon, and it will change the way people consume video, said a video-centric proponent. “A lot of it boils down to snacking on TV rather than eating TV,” said Vinod Valloppillil, director of product marketing at Roundbox. “It might be a half-hour-long program, but you tune in for just a couple laughs and then tune out and not latch into the entire plot.” Roundbox, which supports using a mobile phone or some other previously voice- or data-centric device to watch video, is bullish on cable’s chance to dominate as both a content provider and a content delivery mechanism. While he theorized cable will start out riding shotgun with a mobile provider such as Sprint, the industry will eventually move into the driver’s seat, possibly using 700 MHz spectrum abandoned by the broadcast networks and auctioned by the FCC. Because video is a familiar format, the cable industry will be easily able to slip into overdrive with an offering of voice, data and interactive video-with a catch. It costs big bucks “The thing that makes it a little difficult for them to completely divorce themselves from Sprint is that building a 700 MHz system costs something like $500 million to $1 billion in capital,” he said. That’s a tough bill to swallow, but building the necessary two-way network for interactive gets “into the realm of $1 billion to $3 billion in expenditure,” and that may be a choking point, he said. In Valloppillil’s view, two-way access adds more than spice to the mobile recipe-it’s the essential ingredient. Traditional one-way broadcast TV delivered to a 2-inch screen doesn’t cut the mustard. The mobile TV model is the opposite of the original interactive TV scheme worked on by computer-centric developers such as Microsoft, where Valloppillil used to work. That model tried to take broadcast content and graft it onto a two-way network, but “when it comes to mobile broadcast, you’re taking a fantastic two-way voice network and trying to graft on a high-capacity broadcast network,” he said. Roundbox, which builds client and server software to span different broadcast networks, sees two classes of broadcast technology in the mobile space: in-band broadcast, using cellular frequencies for broadcasting, and out-of-band broadcast. One set of content “In both situations, the operator is broadcasting a set of content once,” Valloppillil said. In-band broadcasts use an operator’s existing frequencies and cellular infrastructure to create a “party-line” experience from a data circuit inside that network. Out-of-band uses a parallel set of frequencies-UHF or FM-to transport a collection of media channels to a subscriber’s UHF or FM-enabled handset. Those frequencies are generally available since the UHF bands are among the first being abandoned by the broadcasters and put up for sale. Technology for both the dual frequency delivery and reception is developing. Cable’s video-centric engineers should feel comfortable in the second space because it uses a familiar medium-broadcast TV-to drive content. 20 to 30 channels “A single UHF channel typically carries a single analog television station. When you apply modern cellular techniques to it, it becomes a single band channel over about 20 to 30 megabits … and you are able to squeeze out 20 to 30 channels of small-screen TV in the space,” he said. A mobile provider could then theoretically offer a subscription TV service that offered “virtually unlimited access to the content flowing across that network.” How that content looks, feels and is consumed, of course, is the choking point of any mobile TV plan. While some services such as MobiTV and downloaded video to iPods have shown there is some consumer interest in longer-form video, many observers question how long a subscriber will squint at a small screen to watch Lost. That’s drawn interest to mobisodes, short episodic bursts of video built for cell phones, a format that Valloppillil concedes has value; he won’t concede the value of traditional television as part of a mobile medium. More to broadcast than mobile TV “At Roundbox, one of our mantras is there’s a lot more to broadcast than mobile TV,” he said. “There are qualitative advantages to broadcast above and beyond just cost and nice quality video.” For one thing, he said, mobility lends itself to geographical targeting; for another, it encourages niche applications. “For example, you’re at Giants Stadium and station number 5, instead of being a television station, is a continuously broadcast map or index of the services available at the stadium,” he said. In Roundbox’s view, television-traditional and reformatted-is going to drive the next generation of mobile devices. And if that means people snacking rather than sitting down for a family meal, well, this is a fast food generation. Jim Barthold

The Daily

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