Mobile DTV goes Wi-Fi to reach iPhones

The Tivit, coming at CES, will pick up broadcast TV and send it over Wi-Fi to compatible devices

Among the devices supporting mobile digital TV at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week will be a small box designed to bring over-the-air broadcasts to iPhones, BlackBerries, laptops and other devices with Wi-Fi.

The ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) approved a mobile DTV standard for the U.S. in October, but CES is expected to host the first major announcements of devices that can receive the signals. The Tivit, development of which was partially funded by the industry group Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), will pick up a standard mobile DTV signal and transmit it via Wi-Fi to a mobile phone or any other device equipped with Wi-Fi. It is expected to go on sale in the first half of this year for between US$90 and $120.

All the major U.S. mobile operators offer some form of TV service, but those services are oriented toward national channels and video on demand. Mobile DTV allows local stations to broadcast their regular over-the-air programming or other content from their existing transmission facilities. The broadcasts are carried over a portion of the station's regular frequencies and use high-quality H.264 video and HE AAC v2 (High-Efficiency Advanced Audio Coding, Version2) audio encoding. Stations are expected to begin by showing their standard content, free of charge, but could also add special mobile DTV channels available by subscription.

Several mobile DTV devices are expected to be announced at CES, including a portable DVD player from LG Electronics. As for content to watch on those upcoming devices, 30 local stations out of about 1,600 across the U.S. are already set up for mobile DTV, according to the OMVC. It costs less than $150,000 and about two hours to upgrade a station for mobile DTV, said David Arland, a spokesman for the OMVC and Valups, which will make the Tivit.

The Tivit could open up mobile DTV to a plethora of devices already in consumers' hands, giving early adopters a taste of free, live, local TV on their handsets. The OMVC, which represents more than 800 local broadcast TV stations, will use it as part of a trial this year in the Washington, D.C., area in which eight local stations will broadcast mobile DTV and various consumers will use different types of devices to watch the broadcasts.

The device, about two inches (5 centimeters) by 3.5 inches and less than half an inch thick, is made by Valups, a South Korean vendor of set-top boxes. Valups adapted it from devices that were introduced in Japan and Korea so iPhone users could continue to enjoy the live local TV they were used to seeing on their cell phones, Arland said. The Tivit is battery-powered, comes with a USB port and a wall adapter for charging, and should last about three hours of viewing on a charge, according to the company. Valups will be looking for retail channel partners at CES, Arland said.

The Tivit can only send video to one Wi-Fi device at a time, though it could be adapted to serve multiple devices in the future, Arland said. It includes a slot for a micro-SD card, which could be used to give a consumer access to subscription-based programming. In addition to the Tivit, Valups will introduce a mobile DTV module for integration into portable consumer electronics devices such as DVD players, TVs and in-car navigation units.

To use the Tivit, consumers will need special software. There is a free application available now in the iTunes App Store for iPhones and iPod Touch devices. Though on Monday the app was still called "Tivit Mobile TV Viewer for DVB-H," it actually uses the U.S. mobile DTV standard and not DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld), the standard used in Europe, Arland said. Users will also be able to download free software for BlackBerries, Motorola Android phones and laptops. There are versions available for Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. The applications will provide a list of available programs. None of the software will work without the Tivit.

Though any Wi-Fi device could pick up transmissions from the Tivit, the mobile DTV standard is designed for use in small devices with screens less than 10 inches across, Arland said. Unlike standard digital TV, it is designed to allow smooth viewing even on high-speed trains, he said.

Introducing the Tivit is a necessary first step in getting mobile DTV off the ground, said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. Some consumers would prefer making a one-time device purchase and getting free TV from then on. However, it will face two major hurdles as a consumer electronics product, he said. One is that consumers won't have any use for it until mobile DTV is on the air in their own areas.

"Until there's broadcasting in your local area with content that you're interested in receiving, it's a doorstop," Greengart said.

The other is that it's one more thing a consumer will have to remember to take advantage of the service.

"Generally speaking, consumers don't like to carry accessories for their devices," he said.

MobiTV, which already sells a managed service to mobile operators for delivering live national TV and video on demand on phones, is bullish about the addition of local broadcasting over mobile DTV.

"We've proved there is a business in mobile TV. This is just another addition to it," said Chief Technology Officer Kay Johansson. Though MobiTV could bring local stations' programming into its service and deliver it based on a user's location information, mobile DTV makes more sense for that, he said. "We definitely believe that you have to have a broadcast element of this in the future."

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More about: Consumer Electronics, Digital Video, LG, LG Electronics, Motorola, TSC
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