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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 part 3/5: Reasons to be cheerful

With three mobile operators, Verizon Wireless, Telstra of Australia and Smart Communications in the Philippines, now having conducted successful trials of LTE Broadcast, it is a good time to assess why at last multicast video transmission over cellular is coming of age.

There have been various failures in the past, such as DVB-H, mostly in Europe, and Qualcomm’s MediaFLO in the US, but they came too early and did not meet all the technological challenges. The underlying factor is the proliferation of tablets and ever larger smartphones, providing users with compelling mobile devices conducive not just for snacking but also consuming longer form content. This in turn has created a surge in video consumption over cellular that threatens to swamp both radio spectrum and the backhaul capacity of radio operators.  LTE Broadcast can save spectrum and fixed network capacity for popular live or linear video content that is consumed simultaneously by a sufficiently large number of people that would otherwise generate multiple unicast streams down to the cell level.

If there are only one or two people in each cell watching a given stream, then LTE Broadcast will not save much spectrum. But there is usually at any one time some relatively popular content being streamed over a given cellular network. Therefore, as various surveys from Ericsson and others have indicated, on average a mobile operator can cut traffic by at least 10% through use of LTE Broadcast. But that does not give the full picture, since the savings will be greater at peak times when more popular content tends to be consumed.

But the killer use case is for venue broadcasting, where hundreds or even thousands of people at say a large sporting event or concert may simultaneously want to tuck into action replays or content relevant to the occasion. Then LTE Broadcast becomes essential both to feed the cell where the venue is located and to distribute the content to devices over the RAN (Radio Access Network). Of course earlier cellular broadcast technologies could also serve venues in principle, but fell down over cost of infrastructure, lack of complaint devices and mobile screens being too small for compelling viewing. DVB-H required significant additional infrastructure investment to deploy, as well as specific upgrades to handsets.

LTE Broadcast will run 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 ready to hit the market in the second half of 2014. It also delivers video much more efficiently than its ancestors such as DVB-H, partly through being based on the 3GPP eMBMS (Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service). eMBMS uses OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), which has been incorporated a while in other wireless systems such as Wi-Fi, Wimax and DVB broadcast, but is new to cellular. The key point is that OFDM is a form of inverse multiplexing, splitting the broadcast signal over multiple low bit rate carriers that are therefore closely spaced in frequency, but do not interfere with each other because the waves are out of phase with each other.

This greatly increases robustness against fading at a given frequency, since the signal is split out across a range of frequencies. This robustness enables LTE Broadcast to deliver premium broadcast quality video over cellular for the first time. Apart from eMBMS, LTE Broadcast will in future be able to take advantage of associated developments in video transmission, in particular MPEG DASH for standardized streaming and HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding)/H.265 for stronger video compression. Taken together these technologies will ensure that LTE Broadcast both reduces bandwidth consumed by mobile video and increases the quality. This is why despite having been bitten before the cellular industry is convinced that LTE

Broadcast will be a great success. Part one in the series by Philip Hunter is here, part two is here and part four is here.
Philip Hunter

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LTE Broadcast 2/5: operators get new revenue options

Now that LTE Broadcast is off the ground following the world’s first session on a commercial LTE network transmitted by Australian operator Telstra, attention has naturally turned to potential use cases and revenue generating opportunities. The initial attraction for cellular operators, once they have a sufficiently widespread LTE network in the target region, is the significant bandwidth saving they will get when streaming popular live video, with the consequent ability to optimise capacity and improve service quality for customers, especially in crowded areas. That is a business rather than a specific use case, but at least one major operator is planning to come out with all guns blazing with the latter from day one.

Verizon Wireless has already confirmed it intends to time its 2014 launch of LTE Broadcast in the US to coincide with one of the nation’s iconic sporting events to use the technology for streaming video in the stadium. This event is now widely believed to be SuperBowl, the annual championship of the US National Football League, to be held in New York on Sunday February 2nd 2014. This could be a big day for establishing LTE Broadcast’s most widely touted use case for broadcasting coverage, replays and associated video around sporting or music events where there are large numbers of people concentrated into a venue or arena. Without LTE Broadcast such content has to be unicast, which would cripple a cell and leave many users unable to access the service, while also causing congestion on the associated backhaul networks.

For operators this use case, live event streaming, offers potential both for cost savings by reducing or avoiding need for network expansion and also for generating revenue in various ways, for example subscriptions, pay per view, pay per event, a seasonal pass, or revenue sharing with content partners. Apart from live event streaming, other interesting use cases are on the horizon under five broad categories: real time video streaming across the whole network, news services, broadcast radio, off peak media delivery and cell based advertising. Real time streaming again offers revenue sharing opportunities, most likely with broadcasters or pay TV operators as the mobile part of their TV Everywhere strategies, perhaps combined with Wi-Fi hot spots. Already Verizon Wireless is in talks with US cable operators along these lines. Then for news services, LTE Broadcast has the potential to extend the scope of existing offerings by delivering news and sport as live updates or clips. There is the option of combining these with personalized lower bandwidth unicast services, such as specific stock updates.

These news services could be given away free as part of a premium offering to extract higher subscriptions, or could be advertising driven. The broadcast radio category is also creating some interest as a way of saving unicast capacity while again creating scope for upselling to premium packages and carrying advertising, as well as revenue sharing with providers of content such as music. Then the off peak delivery use case brings a range of opportunities, especially perhaps for tablets as they have greater storage capability, turning them into mobile DVRs (Digital Video Recorders). TV shows, movies, YouTube videos and newspapers could all be drip fed to devices this way, as could software updates. Apart from saving bandwidth this has pay per view opportunities as well as revenue sharing. Finally cell based advertising can be used to deliver ads targeted on the basis of location rather than personal preferences, with live events themselves being an obvious case, but also shopping malls and airports where particular retail outlets or restaurants might want to advertise to mobile users while in that vicinity.

This can be achieved by partitioning LTE Broadcast on a cell by cell basis, so that separate content would be sent to each cell. Most of these use cases are unlikely to be deployed in the immediate future as they will have to wait for widespread availability of devices compatible with LTE Broadcast, which will not be until well into 2015 at least. Meanwhile though some questions are arising, such as how LTE Broadcast will affect Wi-Fi expansion.

There has been interest in Wi-Fi broadcast as well for live events, with Cisco already offering this with its StadiumVision mobile app, which users can download at venues to access event specific broadcast streams over Wi-Fi. This could well compete with LTE Broadcast for live events streaming, but that is another story. Part one in this series is here and part three 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.