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Mobile digital TV for the small screen

Now that most of us have our digital big-screens TVs, it's time to go the other direction: Mobile digital TV means small is beautiful, and maybe more importantly, ready to go when and where you do.
Image: LG's mobile digital TV and DVD player
LG's first mobile digital TV, with an integrated DVD player (DP570MH), will be available later this year for $249. It comes with two sets of earphone jacks so that more than one passenger can watch TV or movies in the back seat of a car, or on a train. LG Electronics

Now that most of us have our digital big-screens TVs, it's time to go the other direction: Mobile digital TV means small is beautiful, and maybe more importantly, ready to go when and where you do.

You may wind up watching it on a 7-inch dedicated screen, like the one LG Electronics will exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show this week. Or, you might do your viewing on a netbook, like the 10.1-inch screen Mini 10 netbook with a built-in mobile DTV receiver that Dell demonstrates Tuesday at CES, which should be available by the holiday season.

There's also a nifty device known as Tivit, already used in Japan and the size of a deck cards, that is as a wireless TV receiver for smartphones with Wi-Fi, such as the iPhone (as well as the iPod Touch) and certain models of BlackBerrys. It will cost around $120, and is due out this spring.

Other ways of getting mobile DTV will include USB mobile DTV laptop receivers, or dongles, that plug into laptop computers, much like dongles for wireless mice or flash drives. They should be available this spring, as well, with prices ranging from $90 to $125.

A place in the car
Cars, too, are another place where mobile DTV may find a home, with DVD players already having a back seat presence.

"The automotive industry is extremely interested in this service, because it’s easy for them to add a receiver chip to the screens, and if consumers can get this basic level of service for free, that makes it really easy for manufacturers to implement," said Anne Schell, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition.

Free? Yes. Local TV stations plan to deliver live, digital broadcasts. Will for-pay and on-demand TV be added? Probably, but not at first. The coalition represents owners and operators of more than 800 television stations around the country. During the first quarter of this year, 70 stations plan to be on the air, with more to come.

"While one of the great opportunities is to give consumers the shows they get now, we’re building the standard of the signal in such a way that we can have a return path to be able to allow for targeted advertising, where everybody involved in the ecosystem can really take part in broadcasting in a more innovative way,"  said Dave Lougee, president of Gannett’s broadcasting division, which has 22 TV stations around the country.

The cost of providing mobile DTV is "relatively small," Lougee said, more of an add-on to the investments that were already made with the nation's transition to digital television last June.

Another avenue for viewers
Within waning broadcast ratings, as more consumers turn to their laptops to watch TV shows on the Web, mobile DTV offers an additional audience for broadcasters who believe consumers will see it as yet one more avenue to watch TV on their own terms.

"Obviously, we have an expectation today that if we’re reading anything that's text-based — an e-mail or a book — we can do that now wherever we are. I think the consumer is going to have the same expectation around their favorite television programming," Lougee said.

Among the cities where mobile DTV initially will be available: Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas.

"I think 2010 will be the year when things really get going, in terms of what the broadcasters are looking to offer," said Michelle Abraham, In-Stat principal analyst who covers mobile television.

For Dell, netbooks with mobile DTV "is a natural progression," as it already offers netbooks with TV tuners, said James Clardy, Dell's technology strategist for mobile consumer products. The company also offers netbooks with TV in Japan, Brazil and China, with receivers that meet those country's technical standards.

"We’re quite happy with the robustness of the mobile DTV signal in the United States, and believe it will catch up to the point that our other global customers are enjoying already. Dell  is very committed to mobile TV as a peripheral product."

The mobile DTV receiver in Dell's netbook will be built into the LCD panel, and there will be a small external antenna to use as well.

During CES, several broadcasters will demonstrate mobile DTV, including the News Corp., Sinclair Broadcast Group, Discovery Communication and NBC Universal. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

The capital investment by broadcasters to provide mobile DTV is not onerous, Schell said; they basically need to add what is known as a Mobile DTV exciter, as well as signal encoding equipment, onto already existing transmission systems.

LG Electronics, a co-developer of the Mobile DTV standard, has made the first battery-operated mobile DTV in the United States, the combo TV and DVD player.

"Unlike the digital TV transition that we just went through last year, the chicken and the egg are all in place this time," said John Taylor of LG Electronics.

"We’ve got broadcasters on the air already and many more coming. The infrastructure is in place for consumer device manufacturers with chips and the new certification program from the ATSC to certify compliance with the standard," he said. "Retailers gearing up to carry these products in 2010, so the stars are aligned for what we hope will be the beginning of a long and productive launch for reaching many millions of consumers with this new service."

Cell phones: Not yet
Cell phones — especially smartphones with their increasingly Swiss Army-knife capabilities and those with displays of at least 3 inches — would seem to be a natural for mobile digital TV.

But wireless carriers have yet to show much enthusiasm for it.

"Carriers have been a little slow, they haven’t been pushing it," said Schell. "They have other priorities, including building out their networks. Providing high-bandwidth applications over their existing networks is not exactly what they want to do if they can’t monetize it."

Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint, the nation's three largest wireless carriers, offer subscription TV that starts around $10 a month and includes news, sports and entertainment clips, as well as full episodes of some programs, carried over cellular networks.

"I think the carriers will wait and see how popular, how many consumers are interested, what kind of demand they’re getting from their customers, how popular the stations are before making any decision," said Abraham of In-Stat.

The Tivit mobile DTV receiver can work with wirelessly enabled smartphones like the iPhone and certain BlackBerrys. It is about the size of a deck of cards.

One carrier has agreed to work with the coalition in further trials that will be done in March in the Washington, D.C. area, which so far has been the largest test pond for mobile digital TV. Schell declined to say which carrier that is.

Another issue is timing. The mobile DTV technical standard was approved in October by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, and it takes about 18 months to get a handset on the market, "the usual lifecycle of getting a commercial device out through a wireless carrier," Schell said.

The battery-operated Tivit receiver, made by a company called Valups, may come to the rescue for those who have smartphones with Wi-Fi capabilities. That includes iPhones and some BlackBerrys.

It's already being used in Japan by iPhone owners because the iPhone does not have TV tuning technology built in, as do many other phones in Japan. The Tivit will also work with PCs using Windows XP with Service Pack 3, Windows Vista and Windows 7.

A mobile DTV signal can be received at speeds of up to 160 mph, Schell said, making it a good choice for devices, such as netbooks or portable media players, carried by train commuters as well as automobile passengers.

What about those portable 7-inch TV sets, many of which were sold as doorbusters during the holidays, for under $100? They're digital TV, but not mobile DTV, Schell said. They are portable, but stationary. Manufacturers, she said, recently agreed to add a special logo that notes if a portable TV is also one that receives mobile, over-the-air signals.

"The difference is you can’t take that standard portable TV and stick it in the back of your car and drive with it and have it work," she said.

"You can’t pick it up and move it and still receive a signal. You can’t be walking around the house with it. You move it slightly — you have to point the antenna in the right direction to receive that signal; it’s not ruggedized. What mobile brings is the ability to do all of that."