opinion


LTE broadcast: If at first you don’t succeed…

The BBC is trialling multicast technology

There can be no service proposition that better illustrates the gulf between concept and commercial success than mobile TV. A favourite of industry futurologists around the turn of the millenium, mobile TV provision was felt to be a logical extension for cellular operators and numerous powerpoint presentations were dedicated to a vision of the future that depicted us all watching scheduled television—some of it created specifically for the mobile platform—on our mobile devices.

Attempts to make it happen continued long into the last decade, with little success. Mobile TV was a tall order; it required new network technology (DVB-H, MBMS, MediaFlo) that in return created the need for new devices. Broadcast technology like DVB-H emerged from an industry that specialised in getting a signal to the top of a house, rather than specific, mobile devices within or outside of the house and handset technology, in terms of screen and battery performance, was not up to the mark. Then there was the business model. Mobile operators had no experience as content providers or aggregators and the digital rights quagmire swallowed many fledgling services. Without decent content or handsets equipped to display it, revenue was never going to be forthcoming.

The idea of mobile TV came about long before YouTube, NetFlix, Google and Apple were major forces in the mobile and internet markets. The changes these firms and others like them have wrought on both the mobile and television markets have been so fast and far reaching that any plans that the mobile industry had to create a mobile version of a familiar television service soon became hopelessly outdated.

And yet that core belief, that people would consume video on mobile devices, has been proven to be entirely justified. Not for the first (or last) time the industry showed itself far better at conjuring use cases than business cases and the explosive uptake of mobile video has become a burden rather than a bonus. And with consumption of video set to grow yet further the industry needs new ways to manage that burden. LTE offers operators a more efficient means of moving data from place to place but the idea that a broadcast model for the distribution of content could be more efficient still has refused to die. A number of companies, including leading vendors like Ericsson, Qualcomm and Alcatel Lucent, are putting weight behind LTE Broadcast and operators including Telstra and Verizon are showing serious interest in the solutions.

“If you have two to four consumers within a cellsite watching the same content then you’re better off moving to broadcast,” says Mazen Chmaytelli, senior director of business development for Qualcomm Labs. Chmaytelli is a veteran of Qualcomm’s MediaFlo programme and, while he concedes that the business model didn’t work, the technology was still seen as having value within Qualcomm, not least because of the substantial R&D investment that had gone into it, he says.

“With eMBMS as a feature in LTE Release 9 we looked at our platform and figured that we could port it over and make it LTE compatible,” he says. “Those standalone terrestrial broadcast systems that weren’t built on cellular standards needed their own spectrum, their own towers, their own capex and opex. With eMBMS that’s all gone. If an operator deploys LTE, they can add LTE Broadcast as a feature”

As the industry has evolved, Chmaytelli says, aims have changed in relation to broadcast services. LTE Broadcast is not about creating a separate television offering, a mini cable service. Instead it uses eMBMS to broadcast content when it makes sense to do so, either when there is a mass market for a scheduled event (like a sports match) or when there is breaking news of interest to a very wide audience.

Joakim Sorelius, LTE product manager at Ericsson, says that many operators are slightly skeptical. “The first reaction from MNOs is that this didn’t fly last time so why should it fly now,” he says. “But there are a few leaders among the operators who really believe in this and are determined to make it happen.”

Verizon is one of these operators, and has publicly committed to a 2014 launch, with some kind of service widely expected at that year’s Superbowl NFL event. Australian operator Telstra is another, with non-commercial trials beginning later this year, according to Mike Wright, the operator’s executive director for networks and access technologies. For Wright the benefits are not limited to the distribution of video content.

“We also see this long tail of file distribution to digital signage, or mass software updates and M2M applications,” he says. “With our trials later this year we want to understand the technology implications, what are the radio economics of it, how will it impact our core network but also we want to understand the wider ecosystem. We don’t see this as a simple technology change, more as an ecosystem evolution.”

Telstra has mobile distribution rights for AFL but is currently limited to streaming games to just 2,000 users at any one time, who pay an AUS$50/season subscription fee. With LTE Broadcast this should scale up far more efficiently, the firm believes.

But not all operators have these content distribution deals in place and a good number will be wary of moving into—or back into—that sphere of operation given the difficulties that have been previously encountered. So messaging around LTE Broadcast for the time being seems to be focussed primarily on the efficiencies that the technology can offer, as well as its potential as an off-peak data offload mechanism.

While eMBMS is a Release 9 specification, the feature in LTE Broadcast that enables dynamic handoff between unicast and broadcast is being codified in Releases 11 and 12, according to Mazen Chmaytelli, although the functionality was demonstrated at Mobile World Congress earlier this year. It may be more spectrally efficient to broadcast once a certain number of users are consuming the same content, but what happens to the other services that are operating in the same spectrum? The standard allows operators to set aside up to 60 per cent of FDD and 50 per cent of TDD spectrum for LTE Broadcast use. Trials are essential to find the key points at which efficiencies can be derived, says Telstra’s Mike Wright.

“We need to be aware that it’s not going to be that sophisticated on day one,” he says. “We need to understand the complex implications of a single frequency network, how to activate it, when you turn it on and when you don’t and what its boundaries are. But we have this vision that the network should be able to detect the optimal way to deliver content as different areas of the network see different levels of demand.”

What used to be talked about as mobile TV, and is now just called video, has certainly happened. And all the indications are that the volume of traffic will continue to increase at a gallop. Cisco reported in its VNI earlier this year that video traffic exceeded half of all mobile data traffic at the end of 2012 and will account for more than two thirds of it by 2017. Mobile operators desperately need to improve the efficiency of their video delivery and, if LTE Broadcast proves effective in this area then it will doubtless prove popular with the market. But history tells us that operators should be cautious in investing themselves too eagerly in the potential for true revenue upturn from the technology.

VIEWPOINT: Hector Menendez, wireless marketing director, Alcatel-Lucent

HectorMenendez

Hector Menendez

They say that necessity is the mother of invention— and there is a good deal of truth in that when it comes to LTE-Broadcast. Take the case of Verizon in the USA which—little more than two years after the launch of its LTE network—says that video now accounts for half of all wireless traffic; in fact Verizon predicts that will increase to more than two-thirds in the next three to four years.Faced with that level of demand, necessity, dictates that operators find a more spectrally efficient method of distributing video and other content—especially in locations having many subscribers demanding similar types of premium content. LTE-Broadcast—or eMBMS—will give operators the capability they need not only to service the demand, but also to offer new services. Like many innovations, eMBMS has at least one foot in the past as it borrows many of the techniques of wireline networks and translates them to a wireless environment. eMBMS is attractive to operators because LTE RAN networks can be readily made to support it through largely software-based enhancements— though some additional back office equipment such as LTE multimedia gateways will be needed.

What’s more, eMBMS service areas can be dynamically configured allowing operators the flexibility to offer a mix of broadcast or unicast based services. As a result operators can quickly adapt to the practice of a single broadcast to better meet subscriber demand in an infinitely scalable manner as in the case of a marathon or sporting event occurring in a section of town. But only using LTE-Broadcast to deliver that demand misses another part of the equation and indeed a new revenue opportunity. Combining LTE-Broadcast with a tightly configured metrocell deployment in, for example, a sports stadium, throws up a range of possibilities to deliver value added personalized services that take advantage of context based intelligence such as location or time.

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year Alcatel-Lucent showed how user generated video content could be stitched together, and broadcast over LTE in real time using metrocells, to add a new dimension of the subscriber experience. Operators deploying metrocells in the stadium, in combination with LTE-Broadcast services, could create whole new levels of interaction, generate revenue opportunities, and attract new customers. Operators could, for example, provide and broadcast exclusive footage or camera angles during the game, and could even broadcast crowd-sourced video content live during the game. But it is not just the video opportunity that LTE-Broadcast enables. Fans arriving at the venue could also immediately be pushed the “game-time” app which would only be available in the stadium with a host of pre-loaded content, features and statistics—all supported by advertising and sponsorship.

Of course mobile viewers watching the game on LTE-Broadcast away from the stadium could be offered a “remote” version of the same app without the stadium features.

In this way, LTE-Broadcast will both service demand and create opportunity. We certainly see it as a key component of “the critical bridge”, linking the content people want, to the devices in their hands.


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