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@nebul2’s NAB 2016 Journal (UHD, HDR, VR, All-IP)

Las Vegas was again focused on UHD in 2016, at least through my eayes. The four Keywords I came away with were 1: UHD (again), 2: HDR, but also 3: VR and 4: All-IP production. Of course other things like drones were important, but I'm not a real journalist, I don't know how to write about things I don't know.

NAB Parking Day1

We got in from Europe on the Saturday evening and this year I was on a budget so we stayed in an Airbnb apartment with my colleague Marta. It turned out to be just behind the main LVCC parking lot. On Sunday morning, you can see on thE right what the parking looked like when you arrive before the show is really underway.

Size and growth of the industry

On the Sunday I sat for a moment through the "Media Technology Business Summit" run by Devoncroft and learned abit about the industry trends:

  • Starting with radio shows this year’s NAB is the 94th annual Show, so I suppose in 6 years we’ll have a big bonanza, I wonder if we’ll have something like Augmented Reality in 8K by then.
  • Devoncroft sees the global media being market worth 49bn in 2015 with the US Media industry having pushed revenue per user to the limit. 3000 vendors make up their industry panel and 2009-2015 CAGR was 1,9% with 2014-2015 OpEx spend at -4.2% and CapEx spend at -4.4%.
  • Despite the OTT craze and losing traditional subs, ESPN still gets 7$/Month from linear subscriptions, but only 0,42$/Month from OTT viewers, so hold your hats, linear pay-TV ain’t dead quite yet. Beyond sports, Devoncroft argues that even though there is growth, digital revenues are insufficient to replace linear ones. The big issue is how the ad market can transition.
  • 4K and UHD make up the third most import topic for respondents of Devoncroft's 2016 Big Broadcast Survey the results of which will soon be released. But Demand for UHD is less for “more pixels” than one for “better pixels”. So according to Devoncroft, like Ericsson, the HDR Vs. 4K debate is all but over.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

I then popped into an Augmented Reality (AR) conference where Gary Acock and Juan Salvo were discussing how to add live content to the UnReal video gaming engine. AR is seen as bringing the real world into Virtual Reality (VR). Stitching 360° video is still apparently a “pretty unpleasant experience” and French startup VideoStitch was mentioned as one of the key players working on fixing this. Currently 360° production design is limited by how effectively you can stitch video. But with AR there are also Inherent UX limitations like parallax issues with head movement or camera movement when there’s no head movement. With AR one needs to always know where the head is and how it's positioned as head movements affect the content that is being created.

The amount of data to process for VR can be well over 1TB / hour so the coming (?) VR/AR revolution needs powerful GPU and CPU.

AR, VR and any immersive experience are still moving targets in 2016. But neither AR nor VR are isolated from the broadcast experience anymore. Indeed VR is less of an isolating and lonely experience, but a new way of engaging, a bit like coming to a conference and interacting with social media on a smartphone at the same time. Content is still king and creating compelling content remains the goal where AR & VR are just other tools. As we still don't have toolsets like an « Adobe for AR/VR » we need to jerry-rig existing tools.

A VR demo that was not at NAB intrigued me. Frauhoffer’s Stephan Steglich told me about FAME. It’s the simple idea of navigating the 360 video with a remote control. 2 key advantages are removing the isolation aspect of having to wear something over the eyes and moving all the processing to the cloud, allowing for future-proof deployments. It sounded convincing but I’ll wait for a compelling demo before making an opinion.

Showstoppers

Sennheiser Mic

I had been told great things about the CES Showstoppers being a big event, at my first experience at NAB, it was a very focused affair where great food and wine seemed to be as attractive for the media as the companies to visit.

German manufacturer Sennheiser was showing off their latest MKE440 DSLR microphone, which they say is the first mini-shotgun for HQ stereo sound image in one take. I was more taken by the beautiful design of the prototype VR microphone that goes under VR camera.

I met up with V-Nova’s Fabio Murra who was showing their two OTT deployments based on their Perseus codec. FastFilmz launched on March 26 in India offering SVoD to a mobile-only Tamil customer base with a potential of 120m subs. There were 350 titles at launch and according to V-Nova, Perseus made the business case possible in southern India where only 2G is available in some areas, offering a 64-128 kbps bandwidth. The demo I saw was watchable at 120kbps using 14 fps (I had to point that out though). The Perseus codec is described as “hybrid on top of H264” with a metadata stream on top of H264. I’ll be looking to dig into this a bit more as I no longer understand exactly what this means after a heated discussion several analysts. Content is protected with DRM I couldn’t find out by who.

I only glimpsed the other demo of a 4K STB using OTT delivery. It was showing Tears of Steel at 4mbps and looked fine but without any wow effect at least for what was on screen then, or maybe it was just that I was too far away for the small screen.

V-Nova had already announced a contribution deal with Eutelsat and promised another one for the next day (which turned out to be Sky Italia).

brother

The Japanese company Brother that I wrongly thought of as a printer maker (does any Japanese company do only one thing?) was displaying « Airscouter », a surprising head-mounted monitor designed for cameramen in difficult positions. You see a 720p resolution image in the corner of one eye. It was a bit disconcerting and I guess limited to some very specific use cases. I felt a bit nauseous with it on my head but it does really work and felt maybe like what Iron Man might feel.

Ultra HD Forum

Monday was taken up with Ultra HD Forum activities for me. We had our own press conference in the morning and in the after noon I made a tiny presentation during the Pilot press conference in the Futures Park. I discussed, the forum’s reason for being, it’s history, our Plugfest #1, the Guidelines 2016 and the general « Work in Progress » aspect of live UHD.

« Pilot » is new name for « NAB Labs » that was started in 2012. We were among 30 exhibitors in Futures Park, which aims to promote « Edge of the art » concepts that are not yet commercialized. ATSC 3.0 was the star with 15 companies focusing on that alone. Other stuff is very diverse ranging from commercial R&D, government to academic research. NHK 8k Super High Vision was prominent as usual and the Nippon public broadcaster is still scheduled to launch commercially in 2018 « so people can enjoy in 2020 Japanese Olympics » in glorious 8K HDR with HFR.

Security and analytics

Monday night was over-booked and I chose the Verimatrix media dinner. I had some animated discussions on UHD and the extent to which HDR might be the only big game-changer (I still believe in 4K but am feeling more and more lonely on that front). Tom Munro the CEO gave me a great update on the company strategy and how the move towards analytics, which I now understand can be a logical progression for a security vendor. If the financial transactions are precious enough to secure, then private usage data is worthy of the same efforts. More on that in a dedicated blog soon.

Satellite industry on edge of a cliff and might UHD save it?

On Tuesday I got myself to the Satellite industry day. I have this vision on the industry (at least the broadcast and the Telecoms parts of it) sitting on the edge of a cliff wondering when fiber, 5G and delinearization will push the off the edge.

Despite a great lineup with Caleb Henry of Via Sat Mag, Steve Corda VP Bizdev SES, Markus Fritz Eutelsat, Dan Miner AT&T and Peter Ostapiuk of Intelsat, the opening panel didn’t really give me any new ideas to tackle that problem.

AT&T in particular sees similarities between the move from SD to HD and that from HD to UHD, but IntelSat sobered the audience asking how the content industry will make money from upgrade to UHD. SES’s Steve Corda made it scarier still reminding the audience that during the upgrade from SD to HD we didn't have competition from OTT as we do now with most early UHD coming from OTT suppliers.

The satellite industry panel agreed that demand for UHD channels is growing especially from their cable operator clients and that the bottleneck is still available content. AT&T's Dan Miner noted that a key change in OTT delivery in the coming 18 months is that US data plans will enable the TV Everywhere on cellular networks.

The consensus is that to have a monetizable UHD offering you need a bouquet of at least 2 channels, ideally at least to 5 including sports.

When the panel went round enumerating their live 4K services, I counted about a dozen UHD linear channels and as many demo channels as well as a few events based channels.

One of Viasat’s founders Mark Dankberg gave an inspirational talk reassuring the audience that the satellite industry’s future is safe, at least if they copy Viasat. The merger of AT&T and DirecTV is an indicator to him that Satellite without broadband is no longer viable in the long term. Viasat started 1986 in defense, during the 90's they got into VSAT (Data Networking) just on the B2B side. Dankberg believes high –orbit geostationary is still the way to go (instead of mid of low-orbit (LEO)) because it’s the best way to optimize resources with thousands of beams. He points out that as 95% of demand is in 15% of geography; LEO that orbit the earth can't do that. I was enthused by his talk and hoping to get home and write a blog about it, but when I looked through my notes I realized that in the end there wasn’t any new information, just the charisma and communicative beliefs of an industry veteran.

TV Middleware on Android

Beeniuis, the middleware guys from Slovenia that I’ve written about a few time caught me in the south hall so I went to have a look.

In demonstrating their new version 4.2 core product, Beenius told me that the EPG is dead but still went ahead to show me theirs. Navigation is via genres with favorite channels on top of a carousel that mixes live and VoD. Recommendation currently uses their own algorithms but can be based on Think Analytics with « Trending » content on second line.

beenius

The company is very Google-centric, although they still have a Linux offering with a Hybrid DVB solution. They clarified to me how GooglePlay apps can be controlled by the TV operator with three different approaches:

  1. 1. Preinstalled apps and an open GooglePlay
  2. 2. « Walled Garden » where the user chooses apps from the operator’s list typically among a dozen including YouTube, Netflix, etc.
  3. 3. Apps already embedding into the UI, which is also a closed model.

VoD also benefits from integrated recommendation but is open to extra info from the Web such IMDB content.

Beenius haven’t had much interaction with 4K yet, although they say they are ready. As with any competitive TV middleware you can fling content from screen to screen.

The operator-controlled UI can be updated from a central server so that a new version of the App gets automatically pushed to STB via GooglePlay as soon as it's closed and reopened. Playing in the google arena has enabled a full-featured app for Android powered smart TVs, Beanies just needs Google to finally get it right in the living room.

Automatically generated HDRB-COM

Ludovic Noblet of French institute of research B<>Com showed me a tool to up-convert SDR content to HDR. He sees it as a gap-filler for legacy setups which is already available for offline, with a real-time version planed for IBC 2016. The current version introduced a latency of just 3 images and was convincing even if it didn’t carry that amazing wow-effect of some native HDR content. He was very secretive about the first customers but seemed very confident.

The pull of social media

On the last day I had a quick stop at Texas Instrument’s tiny booth, simply because they engaged with me on twitter ;o)

The LMH1219 is a 12G SDI card shown above enables SDI cables to be up to 110m without any signal attenuation, instead of the usual 20-30m. Its UltraScale processing equalizes and Improves the signal. The TI chip is agnostic to metadata so should work fine with HDR for example.

Another hardware innovation they showed me was a single chip for receive (Cable EQ) or drive mode (TX) that makes BNC connectors more versatile as they needn't be just IN or OUT but can be either. The device isn’t available yet nor does it have a product name. Launch is expected in Q1 2017.

Note that I didn’t interact with any of the All-IP production vendors, but just noted it as a buzzing theme in conferences and on booth signage.

NAB Day 3

Oh and the Convention Centre car park looked like this from our apartment window by 9:30 am Monday through Wednesday:

That’s all for now folks.

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“HaLow” sets stage for multi-channel Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s announcement of the low power version IEEE 802.11ah, dubbed “HaLow”, was dismissed by some analysts as being too late to make a significant impact in the fast growing Internet of Things (sector). That view is wrong and seriously discounts the power and momentum behind Wi-Fi, to the extent that HaLow has already received extensive coverage in the popular as well as technical press. It is already far closer to being a household name than other longstanding contenders as wireless protocols for IoT devices such as Zigbee and Zwave.

It is true that certification of HaLow compliant products will not begin until 2018, but with IoT surging forward on a number of fronts including the smart car, digital home and eHealth, SoC vendors such as Qualcomm are likely to bring out silicon before that. There are good reasons for expecting HaLow to succeed, some relating to its own specifications and others more to do with the overall evolution of Wi-Fi as a whole.

Another factor is the current fragmentation among existing contenders, with a number of other protocols vying alongside Zigbee and Zwave. This may seem to be a reason for not needing yet another protocol but actually means none of the existing ones have gained enough traction to repel a higher profile invader.

More to the point though HaLow has some key benefits over the others, one being its affinity to IP and Internet through being part of Wi-Fi. Zigbee has responded by collaborating with another wireless protocol developer Thread to incorporate IP connectivity. But HaLow has other advantages, including greater range and ability to operate in challenging RF environments. There is already a sense in which the others are having to play catch up even though they have been around for much longer.

It is true that Bluetooth now has its low energy version to overcome the very limited range of the main protocol, but even this is struggling to demonstrate adequate performance over larger commercial sites. The Wi-Fi Alliance claims that HaLow is highly robust and can cope with most real sites from large homes having thick walls containing metal, to concrete warehouse complexes.

 

The big picture is that Wi-Fi is looking increasingly like a multi-channel protocol operating at a range of frequencies to suit differing use cases. To date we have two variants, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, which tend to get used almost interchangeably, with the latter doubling up to provide capacity when the former is congested. In future though there will be four channels, still interchangeable but tending to be dedicated to different applications, combining to yield a single coherent standard that will cover all the basses and perhaps vie with LTE outdoors for connecting various embedded IoT and M2M devices.

HaLow comes in at around 900 MHz, which means it has less bandwidth but greater coverage than the higher frequency Wi-Fi bands and has been optimized to cope well with interference both from other radio sources and physical objects. Then we have the very high frequency 802.11ad or WiGig standard coming along at 60 GHz enabling theoretical bit rates of 5 Gbps or more, spearheaded by Qualcomm, Intel and Samsung. WiGig is a further trade-off between speed and coverage and it will most likely be confined to in-room distribution of decoded ultra HD video perhaps from a gateway or set top to a big screen TV or home cinema.

Then the 5 GHz version might serve premium video to other devices around the home, while 2.4 GHz delivers general Internet access. That would leave HaLow to take care of some wearables, sensors and other low power devices that need coverage but only modest bit rates. As it happens HaLow will outperform all the other contenders for capacity except Bluetooth, with which it will be on much of a par.

 

HaLow will be embraced by key vendors in the smart home and IoT arena, such as Paris based SoftAtHome, which already supports the other key wireless protocols in its software platform through its association with relevant hardware and SoC vendors. SoftAtHome can insulate broadband operators from underlying protocols so that they do not have to be dedicated followers of the wireless wars.

AirTies is another vendor with a keen interest as one of the leading providers of Wi-Fi technology for the home, already aiming to deliver the levels of coverage and availability promised by HaLow in the higher 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. It does this by creating a robust mesh from multiple Access Points (APs), to make Wi-Fi work more like a wired point to point network while retaining all the flexibility of wireless.

 

All these trends are pointing towards Wi-Fi becoming a complete quad-channel wireless offering enabling operators to be one stop shops for the digital home of the future, as well as being able to address many IoT requirements outside it.

At the same time it is worth bearing in mind that the IoT and its relative M2M is a very large canvas, extending to remote outdoor locations, some of which are more far challenging for RF signals than almost any home. In any case while HaLow may well see off all-comers indoors, it will only be a contender out doors in areas close to fixed broadband networks. That is why there is so much interest in Heterogeneous Networks (HetNets) combining Wi-Fi with LTE and also why there are several other emerging wireless protocols for longer distance IoT communications.

One of these others is Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN), a low power wireless networking protocol announced in March 2015, designed for secure two way communication between low-cost battery-powered embedded devices. Like HaLow it runs at sub-GHz frequencies, but in bands reserved for scientific and industrial applications, optimized for penetrating large structures and subsurface infrastructures within a range of 2km. LoRaWAN is backed by a group including Cisco and IBM, as well as some leading Telcos like Bouygues Telecom, KPN, SingTel and Swisscom. The focus is particularly on harsh RF environments previously too challenging or expensive to connect, such as mines, underwater and mountainous terrain.

Another well backed contender is Narrowband-LTE (NB-LTE) announced in September 2015 with Nokia, Ericsson and Intel behind it, where the focus is more on long range and power efficient communications to remote embedded sensors on the ground. So it still looks like being a case of horses for courses given the huge diversity of RF environments where IoT and M2M will be deployed, with HaLow a likely winner indoors, but coexisting with others outside.

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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.

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What does the sale of Microsoft’s Media Room to Ericsson say about Redmond’s TV strategy?

By finally ditching its Mediaroom middleware and all the associated IPTV baggage, Microsoft is at last well placed to make a big splash in the living room, driving in with a new version of the Xbox console. The Mediaroom sale to Ericsson was well timed from Microsoft’s point of view, coming just ahead of a long planned Xbox announcement in May which we are sure will lay the foundations of an ambitious and aggressive OTT strategy designed to beat Google and Apple, as well as beleaguered service providers.

At least by selling Mediaroom to Ericsson Microsoft has ensured that its existing IPTV customers are not left high and dry this time. Back in the 90s this happened to the early adopters of Microsoft TV such as TV Cabo in Portugal. This was Microsoft’s first foray into Pay TV, focusing mostly on the cable sector, although the technology later evolved into Mediaroom for IPTV.

With the market confused over its direction at that stage, Microsoft

pulled out all the stops to gain customers. Steve Ballmer came over to Europe several times to meet CEOs from the leading Telcos, and many technical teams were flown out to Redmond.

Commercial success for the first Mediaroom customers was dampened by technical teething problems and unavailability of good content, which retarded subscriber uptake. BT Vision in the UK being a good case in point, still being short of a million customers in 2013. But all Microsoft’s marketing might did prevail in the end and sufficient operators around the world took up Media Room to make it officially the leader of the IPTV middleware market according to many analysts.

But the rise of OTT services in the last few years has left Mediaroom falling behind the curve, although that has also been the fate of Microsoft’s IPTV middleware competitors. Now the sexy new Service Delivery Platforms are all the rage.

If even a B2B2C company like Intel wants its slice of the OTT pie, through its soon-to-be-launched web TV service, then surely a true B2C company like Microsoft would be even more motivated. After all the xBox, which started life as a pure games console, has always had the potential to become a living room Trojan horse. With Media Room now gone, there are no more cannibalisation concerns, no more internal conflicts over strategy and no more market confusion.

So we are in line with those who predict a major push by Microsoft in this area. Windows 8 was supposed to stop the decline of the PC as a platform. It hasn’t even slowed it! Steve Balmer doesn’t need us to point out how urgent this is. It could even be an opportunity to get something right before Apple for a change.

So next month we expect Microsoft to unveil the next version of Xbox positioned at the heart of its OTT strategy, with a feature that allows the new console to take control of a TV and set-top box. This sounds like Google TV but with the additional force of the existing Xbox gaming and the large user base that goes with it, about 76 million worldwide.  This will give Microsocft a big leg up into OTT, armed with a product that will overlay its own UI on top of existing TV channels, with the Xbox presumably being capable of connection to existing set tops via HDMI.

For service providers Microsoft’s bold change of strategy will exert further pressure. After Apple stole control of the smartphone form telecom operators and Google jumped into that breach, are service providers now going to lose what little influence they still have in the living room?

Blog post written By Philip Hunter & Ben Schwarz