Digital television going mobile

New mobile high-definition television standard could unleash more gadgets for watching TV on the go

  • At WBFF/Fox45's studio, Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, shows off digital devices that can tap a new high-def video signal for mobile devices.
At WBFF/Fox45's studio, Mark Aitken, director of advanced… (Baltimore Sun photo by Duy…)
June 28, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

The television is being revolutionized. Last year, consumers saw high-definition digital TV become the standard in homes across the nation. And now 3-D TVs are for sale.

The next step may be a moving television set. A coalition of broadcasters and other companies are putting the finishing touches on new technology that would bring digital television directly to cell phones, laptops and gadgets embedded in automobiles. The mobile devices would receive TV signals, not Internet video you can watch now.

The new technology is being tested in the Washington-Baltimore area and in several other regions across the country. In Baltimore, Sinclair Broadcast Group's WBFF/Fox 45 station is broadcasting the new signal, while several television stations in Washington are part of a trial for 150 consumers.

"We're talking about television in the way that everybody thinks about television," said Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology at Sinclair, which is based in Hunt Valley.

Broadcasting companies that own television affiliate stations across the country are most excited about the new technology because it represents a potential new source of revenue, as TV advertising weakened during the recession.

"We think it has the potential to usher in a renaissance in over-the-air television," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "It's important for us to give content to younger-generation viewers who want their content mobile."

Local television stations could expand their advertising beyond in-home television sets to new kinds of mobile devices that come embedded with tiny receivers that pick up the high-definition TV signal. A National Association of Broadcasters study showed that mobile high-definition television could add $2 billion a year in advertising to the local television market.

"It's important for broadcasters to have a mobile TV future," said Aitken, who is chair of an industry group that set technical standards for the new technology.

The technology works in devices that have been modified with small electronic chips to receive and display high-definition television programming. But major companies — from broadcasters to device makers to wireless carriers — are trying to figure out an appropriate business model before making it available to the masses.

Consumers are growing increasingly accustomed to watching video on mobile devices, but that technology is delivered by the Internet and cellular networks. Consumers may start seeing devices equipped with mobile digital television reception of over-the-air broadcast signals in a year or two, according to industry experts.

Analysts who cover the television and Internet broadcasting industries said that competing interests among the different industries that have varying stakes in mobile digital TV could complicate efforts to bring it to consumers.

Tim Farrar, president of wireless consulting firm TMF Associates in California, said that wireless carriers, who have significant control over the kinds of cell phones they allow on their networks, may not see any revenue potential in allowing phones that receive high-definition television for free. Wireless carriers might choose to prohibit cell phones with mobile television features on their networks, or charge consumers a fee for accessing it, he said.

"It's hard to see a business model where the cell phone carriers make money off this," Farrar said.

But manufacturers of other devices, such as laptop computers, portable DVD players and automobile video systems may adopt the technology as a new feature that ultimately appeals to consumers.

"A lot of things are coming together all at the same time in this industry," said Fritz Jordan, an analyst with ABI Research, based in Long Island, N.Y.

For broadcasters, the business expense of offering a mobile digital signal is relatively low. The conversion to digital from analog television signals cost each individual station a couple of million dollars to complete over the past several years. Preparing a television station to broadcast the new mobile digital signal may cost only $70,000 to $200,000, industry experts said.

Broadcasters hope to reach more consumers with over-the-air television programming through mobile devices as television audiences have become increasingly fragmented. Consumers are now turning to cable, the Internet and video-on-demand services for content.

Some major mobile device and computer companies including Samsung, LG and Dell are ready to make electronics, such as smart phones and laptops, that can receive the mobile high-definition signal. There are devices that currently enable consumers to capture the standard high-definition signal on computers, but the new mobile standard is designed for people and gadgets that are on the move.

For instance, the new mobile digital signal that's being tested can be received by a properly equipped device held by a person traveling in a car or train that's moving up to 100 miles per hour.

The new technology standard also would allow for interactivity between the broadcaster and the consumer. Broadcast television shows could include polls for viewers, and advertisements could be interactive, similar to what consumers are accustomed to on the Internet.

For more information about mobile digital television, visit the Open Mobile Video Coalition's website:

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.