The signals are breaking up for the Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld flavor of mobile TV in the United States, even before they've had a chance to light up mobile phone screens and drain the handsets' energy.
Crown Castle's decision to pull the plug on its trials of the technology and planned Modeo service on the 5 MHz of spectrum it acquired from the Federal Communications Commission is a blow to the nascent market--and a potential boon for Qualcomm subsidiary MediaFLO's mobile TV ambitions.
Cell tower operator Crown Castle said it was abandoning the venture because it had failed to find sufficient interest for mobile TV among U.S. network operators. Yet arch-rival MediaFLO has managed to tie up deals with AT&T and Verizon Wireless, both of which are pushing ahead with services in select U.S. locales.
Crown Castle last week leased its spectrum to a venture formed by Telcom Ventures and Columbia Capital. It's unclear what the partners will do with the spectrum they will lease up to 2013. But the deal was not necessarily a bad financial call on Crown Castle's part: The groups will pay $13 million a year for the licenses over the next six years and then have the option to buy the spectrum outright for $130 million. Crown Castle is believed to have paid the FCC $13 million for the spectrum and license, but of course no one knows just how much it spent developing the technology and the network, or running the trials in New York.
The decision also leaves a gaping question mark in Aloha Partners' HiWire project, which uses the DVB-H technology and is the largest owner of 700-MHz spectrum in the United States. Only last week, the Aloha team sealed a deal with satellite network group SES Americom to provide 24 channels for HiWire trials planned for Las Vegas.
The shakeout in the States also comes at an intriguing time for DVB-H's prospects in Europe, where the technology was developed. The European Commission is threatening to mandate use of the standard across all 27 member states, throwing out all pretensions to its supposed policy of technology neutrality for emerging services.
Not surprisingly, Qualcomm and the closely tied FLO Forum are up in arms about the decision, while the Terrestrial-Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (T-DMB) camp has stated it is "mystified" by the threat--and angry about the politicking behind the decision.
In particular, the groups are dismissive of the EC's insistence that coalescence around a single technology is necessary for ensuring economies of scale and stopping the fragmentation of an emerging technology in which Europe has the potential to lead. Similar arguments, of course, were used to mandate GSM in the late 1980s.
This opens up an intriguing scenario for mobile TV: Qualcomm could have a clear run with FLO technology in the States, while DVB-H, originally a Nokia-backed specification, becomes the standard in Europe.
Could this become a rerun of the CDMA vs. GSM cellular wars--and with the same result?
By John Walko (email@example.com), London editor for EE Times