DVB-H vs DMB for Mobile TV: Whither 3G?

There is currently a debate raging as to whether the best long-term technology for broadcasting mobile TV, is DVB-H or DMB, with DVB-H looking like the front runner.

But this is odd. 3G was created as a universal standard for wide area mobile access to high-rate data applications. When it was being standardised, no-one was entirely sure what those applications might be, but they pressed on anyway and lots of marketing folks spent time around whiteboards discussing what the ‘killer application’ might be. There now looks to be a strong possibility that Mobile TV is an example of such an application: high bit-rate, mass appeal, and the real prospect that users might actually pay more for the service, thereby increasing ARPU.

And just as operators find a killer application, they decide that 3G might not be the technology for offering it! I find this hard to believe. Instead, I think operators will find ways to make 3G do the job. Let me explain why.

One justification quoted for moving to DVB-H/DMB is that 3G gets heavily loaded by high-rate applications, causing cell breathing and hence gaps in the network coverage, particularly indoors. That’s certainly true, but technologies like HSDPA and 3G LTE (so-called ‘Super 3G’) will enhance the data rate capabilities of 3G, and new base station form factors and distribution technologies will provide an economical way to roll-out indoor coverage.

Another is that 3G is not fundamentally a broadcast technology, requiring the same programme to be sent individually to each user (unicast), worsening the loading issue. True, but MBMS will deal with this by providing multicast options, and the availability of large amounts of flash or hard disk storage on phones means that they will download delay insensitive programming, which represents most TV, when the networks are not fully loaded.

Also, UK 3G handset penetration has now reached about 15% (source?), growing to 68% by 2010, there aren’t any DVB-H/DMB handsets on the open market yet. I think it will take about ten years longer for such technologies to reach 75% penetration than 3G. Operators can’t wait for that and will do what they can with 3G, which is currently fairly under-utilised. Operators such as Vodafone are already doing this.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the general discussion is that wholesale operators such as BTWholesale or Arqiva will own and run the networks over which Mobile TV is provided. There is some logic in working that way, but clearly they won’t do this for free and this will erode the ARPU advantage of Mobile TV. Again, I think the mobile operators will not let this happen too easily. These networks will themselves need huge investment and will take many years to provide extensive coverage, by which time 3G network coverage will have expanded hugely in extent and depth. Currently even the relevant spectrum is not available, although Ofcom is working on that, with auctions expected next year.

Overall, then, I think the relevant battle is not between DVB-H and DMB, but between these technologies and 3G, where the issues are more finely balanced. Operators might just be making the right noises about the broadcasting technologies while figuring out all the ways in which they can avoid the day when they have admit that 3G is not fit for the very purpose it was designed for.

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One Response

  1. As if by magic, Vodafone have now commented confirming my thinking here: if they can find a way to do this with 3G, they surely will do to avoid the risks of ‘disintermediation’. See http://www.electronicsweekly.com/Articles/2006/09/26/39780/Vodafone+sets+agenda+for+mobile+TV+handsets.htm

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