Mobile DTV Brings Live Television To Cars, Buses

Smartphones with HDTV reception chips and in-car television sets are big business in Taiwan, China, and Brazil. Now the travel-friendly tech behind mobile DTV is making its way to the United States.

It's a badly kept secret that the United States is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to mobile technology. Mobile networks and providers in countries like South Korea, Finland, Japan, and Singapore all make their American counterparts look... wretched. One crucial component of high-end foreign mobile networks, mobile DTV—digital television viewable on the go via smartphone—is now thankfully making it Stateside.

Back in 2010, the FCC more or less cleared the way for television to be viewed on smartphones, thanks to a formal agreement with industry figures and trade groups. However, government worries continue that mass viewing of television on smartphones will lead to even more of a spectrum crunch than already exists. Mobile DTV involves watching existing broadcast or cable stations over a smartphone or tablet, rather than streaming pick-n'-choose content like viewers currently do with YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix. The possibilities are intriguing: Users would be able to watch television in their cars, local stations would see a boost in viewership, a whole new world of targeted advertising would open up to marketers, and smartphones—with minor tweaking—could serve as DVRs.

Mobile DTV is big business in other parts of the world. All of Taiwan's terrestrial broadcasts companies have embraced the technology and automobiles are routinely equipped with mobile DTV receivers. According to a 2009 academic paper, nearly a third of all Taiwanese drivers watch television in their cars. In Singapore, a pilot program put live television on public buses. Multiple markets have been competing to put live television onto Chinese buses and trains. Brazilians have also embraced the technology, thanks to quirks in local data pricing that make watching television via smartphone more attractive than cable.

Chipset and peripheral manufacturers hoping to crack the American market will have their headaches. The United States is one of the world's least public transit-centric nations; mobile DTV on trains and buses will not go far beyond urban centers like New York and Chicago. Safety concerns make the idea of mobile television receivers in cars a disaster waiting to happen. Although high-end automobiles are routinely equipped with backseat video players today, there are still lingering concerns about full-on television screens distracting drivers. Mobile DTV can be viewed at speeds below 150 km/h, making them a natural choice for transportation.

Several companies—none of them American—have already entered into the market. CMMB (China Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting) is the granddaddy of them all and has already partnered with the Chinese government on an English-language news network. CMMB, with close ties to the Chinese government, is trying to convince American television stations and mobile networks to switch over to their proprietary standard of the same name for mobile television. Another Chinese company, Spreadtrum, also manufactures chipsets for mobile television. The lone non-Chinese firm is Israeli outfit Siano, which manufactures chipsets that allow smartphone manufacturers to include mobile DTV functionality and partners with third parties to produce plug-in digital television receivers for iPods, Androids, and USB devices.

Apart from the previously mentioned problems, the biggest hurdle facing mobile DTV Stateside is the simple fact that American companies love their media streaming and are hesitant to accept it. The only previous U.S. mobile digital TV product, Qualcomm's Flo.tv, was an expensive, subscription-only failure whose price tuned out any potential audience they could have had. However, domestic firms seem to be gaining interest on mobile digital TV. RCA, Dell, HTC (well, Taiwanese, but with a massive U.S. market share), and radar detector manufacturer ESCORT all have handheld or car-mounted mobile DTV sets on the way.

[Image via Flickr user LivingMobile]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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