Paris -- The World Cup is revealing an inconvenient truth to the thousands of Italians and Germans trying to watch the games on their cell phones: The physical world is the enemy of mobile TV.
Can users watch a match on a handset LCD in bright sunlight? Almost impossible. Can they curl up in bed to enjoy a game in cellular solitude? It'd be tough: Most mobile-TV broadcast infrastructure is aimed at outdoor coverage.
Can users trust their handsets not to drop frames as the match-winning goal is scored? Not if they're relying on streaming video from a third-generation network. "If there are more than seven users per 3G cell, it's coming to a grinding halt," said Dominic Strowbridge, marketing director at U.K. carrier BT Movio.
Even when a match is beamed via Digital Video Broadcast-Handheld (DVB-H) or DMB infrastructure, separate from a UMTS 3G network, geography profoundly affects quality-of-service. "It's not a uniform science," said Steve Turner, business development manager for mobile broadcast at Philips Semiconductors.
Nonetheless, this month's world soccer championships are shaping up as a defining moment for mobile TV. Debitel in Germany and Italy's 3 Italia are broadcasting all the games live, in their entirety, instead of just offering snippets. Thousands of Italian subscribers began watching last Friday on their DVB-H mobile phones. At the same time, German subscribers were watching in Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart and Frankfurt, using Terrestrial-Digital Multimedia Broadcast (T-DMB)-based handsets.
Elsewhere, some 3G network operators in Europe are streaming World Cup highlights, near-live replays of each goal or match results via cellular networks.
The World Cup '06 user experience will directly affect next-generation handset chip and system designs, further investment by network operators to enable indoor coverage and a possible hybrid broadcast/streaming infrastructure in the future.
The performance level is particularly important, said Yannick Levy, CEO of DiBcom, a French fabless semiconductor vendor specializing in digital mobile TV. "If your demodulator can provide performance improvement by 3 to 4 dB--which our chip does--it results in 50 to 60 percent savings for network operators, as they need to install fewer repeaters," he said.
Although it's a 3G operator, 3 Italia chose to build its own DVB-H-based mobile-TV broadcast network, independent of its cellular network. Debitel, Germany's fourth largest mobile operator, is offering TV services using the existing Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) digital radio infrastructure.
The biggest difference between DVB-H and DAB-based T-DMB is the number of available channels. 3 Italia is currently offering nine mobile-TV channels, increasing to 14 by mid-July. Debitel has launched four TV channels, two "visual radio" channels (mainly music, with some graphics and text) and free access to DAB radio channels.