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Commentary: Free-to-air was the theme of mobile TV during Computex
Michael McManus, DIGITIMES, Taipei [Tuesday 23 June 2009]

Looking back at the product offerings at the recently concluded Computex Taipei 2009, you couldn't help notice that companies highlighting mobile DTV solutions based on the DVB standard were focusing on free-to-air solutions (DVB-T) as opposed to solutions targeting the subscription-based DVB-H standard, despite the latter being the technology standard developed specifically for digital mobile DTV.

While DVB-H (the H is for handheld) has several advantages over DVB-T for mobile TV solutions, such as time slicing to reduce power consumption, system makers indicated that issues still need to be overcome before DVB-H ecosystems can be successfully developed.

The makers noted that DVB-H networks often need to be jump-started by mobile handset service providers, who are wary of the investment costs required. In addition to being expensive the process of developing a DVB-H network tends to be complicated, one chipset executive indicated. Infrastructure needs to be deployed, while content, middleware and handset design needs to be developed and managed. So far very few service providers have felt the incentive to drive the market and those who have entered the market are not seeing much success, the executive noted.

In addition, system makers do not have the freedom to help drive the market. Makers could not simply release DVB-H products on the market, as software needed to adhere to a specific network, which was usually set up by the service provider. Too much control was in the hands of the service provider to make the DVB-H networks a success. In fact, according to Yannick Levy, CEO of mobile TV chipset provider DiBcom, the global market for mobile TV chipset solutions is likely to contract 20-30% in 2009.

However, while service operators have cooled somewhat to mobile DTV, system and silicon providers continue seeing opportunities, especially in the unconstrained market of free-to-air digital TV. In addition to having the freedom to design products as they wish, makers cited a number of reasons why free-to-air solutions, especially those based on DVB-T solutions, are becoming more popular. In terms of market acceptance, an increasing number of markets are now offering digital TV broadcasts, providing users with more content. In terms of power consumption, silicon providers of DVB-T solutions have made great advancements in power-savings, with one Taiwan IC design house noting that an entire DVB-T solution now consumes only about 500mW. And in terms of pricing, falling prices for components and increased integration is providing attractive price points for vendors targeting developing markets, where mobile TV is the most popular, especially in automotive solutions.

GPS IC design house SiRF recently launched its SiRFatlasIV solution that allows system makers to integrate PND and mobile TV functionality in a device priced in the US$100 range. SiRF founder Kanwar Chadha commented that the SiRF solution is targeting free-to-air devices because the most important thing for growth in mobile DTV is delivering an out-of-box experience. People do not want to sign up for, or have to pay a subscription fee to get mobile DTV, Chadha noted.

In fact, Telegent Systems, a silicon tuner design house that focuses on free-to-air mobile TV solutions, believes the mobile TV market is not suffering a setback this year. Free-to-air mobile TV, received over both analog and digital terrestrial broadcast TV networks, is rapidly growing the overall size of the mobile TV market, said Weijie Yun, president and CEO of Telegent.

At Computex, Telegent was showcasing its hybrid digital and analog free-to-air TV solution with partner China-based notebook maker TopStar and the company indicated that it shipped more than 20 million free-to-air mobile TV receivers in the period between mid-2007 and the end of 2008. This highlights the strong market reception that consumers have for the free-to-air business model, Yun explained.

Actually, most mobile TV tuner IC design houses have recognized the importance of free-to-air and are no longer simply focusing on DVB-H to promote their solutions. Leading mobile chipset providers such as DiBcom and Siano Mobile Silicon have introduced integrated chipsets that are compatible with multiple technologies and offer support for both DVB-T and DVB-H, as well as other standards such as ISDB-T, T-DMB and CMMB.

One other interesting mobile TV silicon entrant showcasing product at Computex was UK-based Elonics. The company demoed an integrated multi-band RF tuner implemented in CMOS which is designed to allow users to reconfigure the RF front end for different broadcast standards. The tuner chip supports frequencies and standards including DVB-T, DVB-H, ISDB-T, CMMB, T-TMB and MediaFLO, as well as supporting GPS L1 band (1575MHz) and FM radio (64-108MHz).

Like other silicon tuner providers, the company targets portable device such as handsets, which have no choice but to utilize an integrated silicon tuner due to size and power constraints. However, Elonics also plans to target the traditional TV market, including the flat panel TV space. These segments are still mostly supported by traditional RF tuners that come in the form of tuner cans, which are big, expensive, high power devices that consist of multiple parts. Elonics CEO David Srodzinski indicated that innovative monolithic silicon integrated tuners are now approaching the quality of canned tuners and this represents a huge potential market opportunity for the company.

Srodzinski noted that TAM (total available market) for traditional TVs is in the 200 million range, but the key market segment for silicon tuner designers will be flat panel TVs. Srodzinski stated that currently no flat-panel TV utilizes a silicon tuner. However, this will change over the next few years, as silicon tuner quality continues to improve, Srodzinski stated. Still, however big the market potential for silicon tuners is, the newcomers will still have to compete with more established silicon tuner designers such as Infineon and STMicroelectronics.

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