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LTE Broadcast part 5/5: Verizon prepares for first commercial launch Q3 2014

We spoke to Bill Goers, head of the wireless demonstration team at Alcatel-Lucent, which supplied the platform for the Verizon Wireless LTE Broadcast trial at the recent US Super Bowl.

Following its successful demonstration of LTE Broadcast at the recent US Super Bowl, Verizon Wireless is now engaged in the final run in towards the world’s first commercial launch of a service based on eMBMS (Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) technology in the third quarter of this year. Verizon Wireless’ director of mobile video delivery Parissa Pandkhou indicated that this would happen after the relevant network infrastructure upgrades had been performed by the middle of the year. This includes upgrading the MME (Mobility Management Entity) in the base station to enable broadcast over the radio access network (RAN) and also deploying the BM-SC (Broadcast Multicast Service Center) for session and transmission control along with security and content synchronization. The eMBMS Gateway also has to be installed to enable IP multicast distribution across the operator’s core and backhaul network. LTE Broadcast is multicast out as far as the RAN, allowing operators to select which cells receive the streamed video content. Verizon Wireless has selected both Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson as co-suppliers of this LTE Broadcast platform.

The handsets also need to be upgraded and so Pandkhou pointed out that at the same time Verizon Wireless was working with manufacturers to ensure there would be a reasonable number of LTE Broadcast capable smartphones and tablets by the time of the launch. For the Super Bowl demo, which we first reviewed as it was happening in the fourth blog in this series, Verizon Wireless used two handsets that are already LTE Broadcast capable. One was Verizon’s own branded tablet running an LTE module provided by Paris based 4G chipset maker Sequans and the other the commercially available Samsung Galaxy Note 3 5.7 inch smartphone with an LTE chipset from Qualcomm.

The Super Bowl was not a field test but featured demonstrations from a booth in the ground through which 7000 people passed during the event. The objective was not to assess the technology, which had already been proven, but to play around with use cases and obtain public feedback that would help determine the shape of the service on the launch.

Indeed the platform is now ready to go and Verizon Wireless could launch the service very quickly, according to Alcatel-Lucent’s head of wireless demonstration Bill Goers. But first Verizon wants to work out how best to charge for it. While the Super Bowl demo could not directly answer that question it did provide a lot of valuable feedback about the sort of features that would interest users and therefore at the very least make a mobile service stickier. The key point was that LTE Broadcast enables a sporting event to replicate many of the video features people get at home on their TVs, by effectively turning their handsets into mobile PVRs (Personal Video Recorders). These include commentaries, instant replays, game statistics and interviews with players.

Some of these were provided during the Super Bowl demo, with the additional ingredient of support for user generated content. There is the potential to enable uploading of video from spectators at an event, which could be a concert as well as a sporting contest, for example to provide different camera angles and perspectives beyond those captured by professional camera crews. As Goers noted this would require some moderating function but has the potential to add value by generating novel video streams that can be watched while the event is still going on, or even near live. Such content can be made available as a progressive download so that users can start watching immediately while also having it available for subsequent viewing. In this way LTE Broadcast can deliver a video experience that is in some respects superior to the one available at home.

This ability of LTE Broadcast to at least match the home viewing experience is also appealing to leagues and sports organizers, the US NFL (National Football League) in the case of Super Bowl. The NFL still derives 40% of its income from paying spectators at the gate and yet numbers have been declining because the ever improving experience of watching on TV has made some people question whether it is worth paying up to $100 or more to attend the games, often in the cold and with a poorer view of the action than they are getting at home. The NFL is very interested in the potential of LTE Broadcast to attract more people to games, which itself suggests one avenue to monetization. The LTE operator could take a proportion of gate money over and above a target amount.

What seems unlikely is that users will be charged extra for LTE Broadcast at these events, given that the objective is to enhance the experience of attending without imposing yet another tariff on top of the gate fee. There is though the great potential for location based advertising and information services not just at sporting events or concerts but also at other venues where large numbers of people congregate on a more continuous basis, such as airports, shopping malls and college campuses.  All bets are on during these early days for LTE Broadcast but there is a strong and mounting conviction that revenue opportunities will be there for the taking.

Companies that we have mentioned in the series include Alcatel Lucent, Birdstep Technology, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Sequans, and the operators that have been the most open about their efforts are Verizon and Telstra.

This concludes our 5 part series on LTE Broadcast, which started here.

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LTE Broadcast part 4/5: Mobile broadcast comes of age at last with Verizon Super Bowl demo

A major milestone in the checkered history of mobile broadcast has been reached with a demonstration at the US Super Bowl, one of the country’s biggest and most iconic sporting events. For years mobile broadcast has stuttered, let down by poor business models, the cost of infrastructure and lack of support on consumer devices. While all of these remain hurdles, the latest version of the technology, LTE Broadcast, does really look as if at last it is going to prevail over them. It is ironic that the first LTE Broadcast transmission over a commercial LTE network by Australian operator Telstra in October 2013 almost coincided with the closure of the one of the last services based on the earlier DVB-H technology that was once widely viewed as opening the era of mobile broadcast. The fact that did not happen was not really a reflection of DVB-H itself but more the costs associated with its deployment and fact that devices did not support it.

While talk of successful business models and monetization is still premature, two big related factors have changed in favour of mobile broadcast. These are the arrival of tablets and larger smartphones as attractive and capable viewing devices, which in turn is driving up mobile data traffic at almost exponential rates. Much of that traffic soaking up backhaul bandwidth and RAN (Radio Access Network) spectrum is unicast video. Yet a lot of that at certain peak times is live streaming video that is consumed by many people at a given time. If it could be multicast, then only one instance of that video would need to be transmitted across a given backhaul link and RAN cell. The potential for cost saving as well as improved QoS is immense.

Events like Super Bowl are precisely what we mean here, since there are large numbers of people in one place, many of whom would love to snack relevant video on their mobile handsets such as action replays, or associated data like player stats. Verizon’s Super Bowl experiment is not full scale as it does not involve general user handsets. It will not yet indicate what impact the technology has on end to end network performance and congestion. But it is a good proof of concept that will be followed by larger experiments when wider handset support is available.

In fact the Verizon Wireless live demo, running over five days at Bryant Park in New York, involves streaming of live NFL (National Football League) content to dedicated tablets in the facility called "Verizon Power House" set up in Bryant Park using LTE Broadcast technology provided by chip maker Sequans. The tablets are running Sequans' eMBMS-capable Mont Blanc LTE platform and issued to visitors try out the LTE streaming prior to and during the event.

While this was going on, European operators such as EE and Orange France have been carrying out small-scale trials of LTE Broadcast technology, having in the past tried out DVB-H. They now believe, like Verizon, that the initial motivation for LTE Broadcast will be to optimize capacity and improve service quality for customers in crowded areas. But as Verizon has noted, availability of mobile broadcast in such crowded areas will at the very least help gain and retain customers, with business opportunities such as location based advertising quickly following.

The other key thing is that LTE Broadcast has unwavering support from key industry players like Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent, as well as those like Qualcomm that got their fingers burned earlier on with mobile broadcast. We are now looking at handset availability and the first operational services sometime in 2015.

We’ll be talking to Alcatel Lucent in part five of this series, stay tuned.

Part 3 of this series is here.

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LTE Broadcast 1/5: live debut heralds battles with Wi-Fi to come

The first live LTE Broadcast session delivered recently by Telstra in Australia raised the natural question of why things should be different this time.

The recent history of cellular communications is littered with the skeletons of mobile broadcast’s dismal past, with Telstra’s demonstration as it happens coinciding with the death of the last DVB-H service in Poland. Other notable mobile broadcast failures include Qualcomm’s MediaFLO in the US, which is significant in that the company is now strongly backing LTE Broadcast. Qualcomm’s chipsets are at the center of Ericsson’s LTE Broadcast platform used by Telstra for its live demonstration that served various devices with concurrent video feeds, including a sports match replay, general news and a large video file over the single LTE Broadcast channel.

The same Ericsson/Qualcomm platform will be used in a much more significant test of LTE Broadcast by Verizon at the 2014 SuperBowl in early February 2014. As the most popular US sporting event this will be the perfect springboard for LTE Broadcast, giving it the chance to demonstrate its ability to serve large numbers of users with concurrent streams within a single 4G/LTE cell. This would not of itself prove the case for LTE Broadcast, given that its predecessors could also deliver concurrent streams to multiple users. That after all is the whole point of mobile broadcast. Yet there are important differences this time that suggest LTE Broadcast will at least be a contender for delivering mobile video.

One big difference is that there are now eligible handsets for viewing video, notably tablets but also larger smartphones and a host of emerging hybrid devices that have got consumers hooked onto mobile video consumption when they weren’t before.

The other big difference now is the backing of key industry players and the fact that LTE Broadcast, or more precisely the eMBMS (Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services) technology on which it is based, is an integral part of the LTE ecosystem underpinning current and emerging 4G cellular services.

All the big industry hitters, including Alcatel-Lucent as well Ericsson and Qualcomm, are full square behind it, along with a host of key second string infrastructure vendors like MobiTV. DVB-H was also an open standard but it required significant additional infrastructure investment to deploy, as well as specific upgrades to handsets. LTE Broadcast will run in principle over all LTE infrastructure and while it is not supported by current commercially available handsets, it will come out of the box with the next generation.

Qualcomm's Mazen Chmaytelli, senior director of business development at its Labs, is on record saying he expects the first LTE Broadcast capable handsets to come to market in the second half of 2014. For these reasons LTE Broadcast will be quite widely deployed, with AT&T as well as Verizon Wireless planning to do so in the US, while Korea Telecom is collaborating with Samsung towards a launch in South Korea. In Europe France Telecom’s Orange and EE have announced firm intentions to deploy LTE Broadcast.

Yet at one time there was equal momentum behind DVB-H and despite the fact LTE Broadcast is much better placed its success is still not a done deal. One reason for that is the advance of Wi-Fi, which may enable venues to cater for large scale events more cost effectively through temporary deployment of hot spots. At the same time versions of existing digital terrestrial standards, such as the DVB’s T2 Lite, could be better placed to meet the requirement for general mass delivery of video to mobile devices. There is a good reason for this.

Outside major events such as Super Bowl where large numbers of people will be consuming the same video streams such as sporting action replays, there will not often be more than a handful of people watching the same content in a single cell and often it will only be one. In the latter case LTE Broadcast collapses to unicast. Yet at any given time there may well be a number of people watching different streams in a given cell, so there is still a need for an efficient video delivery infrastructure, which DVB T2 Lite would be as it has a much larger coverage area than an LTE cell. Within the much larger digital terrestrial coverage area, even mid-tier content would often by consumed concurrently by several people, so that mobile broadcast would save a lot of spectrum. Mobile operators such as EE have stated that the initial “monetization motive” for deploying LTE Broadcast will come from more efficient delivery of video both over the backhaul networks and at the radio level inside cells.

My contention is that these efficiency savings will not materialize outside major events. Even within such events, Wi-Fi may be a more cost effective way of addressing the “Super Bowl” effect and could be offered as a service by mobile operators, which would benefit by offloading the traffic directly onto the more efficient fixed broadband infrastructure. On this count there are already a variety of products available, for example from Birdstep in Sweden, which enable automatic selection of traffic for offloading to Wi-Fi according to specified business rules.

With some operators already talking about temporary LTE Broadcast channels for venues as a future business model, it will be interesting to see how this approach will stack up against Wi-Fi and the answer may be not very well. At least with the upcoming Verizon demonstration at Super Bowl 2014, the battle lines are being drawn. Part 2 is here.