Inside MediaFLO’s Operations Center—And the Race to Deploy Over-the-Air Mobile TV Service
The digital broadcast center for Qualcomm’s MediaFLO mobile TV service is a hushed, dimly lit room in San Diego that is dominated by 24 flat-screen, rear-projection screens mounted along one wall. The engineers in the room face these ever-changing displays at work stations equipped with even more flat-panel screens, so the darkness is illuminated by a mosaic of streaming video images and computer-generated data.
I recently took a tour of this sophisticated, high-tech facility to get a feel for what it takes to broadcast TV programs to mobile devices nationwide. Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) began developing the underlying technology for this ambitious business more than seven years ago. In 2007, when Qualcomm announced it was ready to begin its mobile TV service, the company said it had spent $800 million over the previous five years.
Today MediaFLO is transmitting full-length TV programs and movies, along with occasional live broadcasts of news and sports to wireless handheld devices in 65 markets throughout the United States. As impressive as the technology is, though, MediaFLO has yet to gain wide acceptance, and Qualcomm still faces significant risks from rivals who hope to gain ground on the San Diego telecom giant.
Qualcomm had planned to significantly expand its MediaFLO service to an additional 40 U.S. markets immediately after Feb. 17. That was when TV stations across the country had been expected to shut down their analog broadcasts on UHF Channel 55 in a long-planned conversion to digital technology. But Qualcomm’s plans for MediaFLO, which uses the same spectrum as Channel 55, were set back after the government postponed the nationwide digital TV conversion date until June 12.
The extent of Qualcomm’s efforts to develop the technology can be seen on the screens of the company’s network operations center. Some displays continuously monitor the status of full-length TV programs beamed by satellite to the center from partners that include CBS, NBC, and Fox, CNBC business news, ESPN sports, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and MTV.
In the center, spokeswoman Melinda Hutcheon says MediaFLO formats the content for its own programming schedule. The center can produce its own commercials and insert advertising into programming before it’s transmitted by satellite to Qualcomm’s dedicated network of digital mobile TV transmitters. The center even has a separate control room to handle broadcasts of live sports and news events, such as President Obama’s recent inauguration.
The market for live sports broadcasts seems especially attractive. Since Qualcomm launched its FLO TV service to Verizon two years ago—and added service to AT&T roughly 10 months ago—Hutcheon says, “We’ve had over 5,000 hours of live sports.”
The San Diego operating center controls all of MediaFLO’s broadcasts nationwide, and all of the programs are transmitted in the 700 MHz spectrum, or UHF Channel 55. But by using proprietary technology to digitally encode its programs, MediaFLO can broadcast its programming on as many as 20 separate TV channels.
Shutting down all analog TV station broadcasts will finally clear the airwaves in Boston, San Francisco, and other key markets where Qualcomm wants to expand its MediaFLO service. But the four-month delay could help rivals in the Open Mobile Video Coalition gain ground in offering their own over-the-air programming for mobile devices. The coalition announced in January that 63 TV stations in 22 cities would begin TV broadcasts this year using a competing mobile DTV standard.
Even if Qualcomm maintains a substantial lead in deploying its technology, it’s unclear how receptive the market for mobile TV broadcasts will ultimately prove to be. Similar technology deployed in Finland two years ago has yet to take off, according to Mikael Jungner, the CEO of Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. Jungner told my Xconomy colleague Juha-Pekka Tikka, who is in San Diego on a journalism fellowship from Helsinki, that success has been lukewarm for Nokia’s digital video broadcasting technology for handheld wireless devices.
Meanwhile Qualcomm is preparing to launch its expanded MediaFLO coverage. “We’re disappointed that the DTV transition date was delayed until June 12th,” Qualcomm spokeswoman Christie Thoene told me in a recent e-mail. “By the end of the year, more than 200 million Americans will be able to experience our award-winning mobile television service. We hope and expect that there will be no further delay beyond June 12th, consistent with the comments made by many members of Congress who made it clear that no further delay would be entertained.”