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Commentary: Barriers to Smooth Streaming Remain Visible at 3GSMWorld 2006

If merely talking about a particular technology were sufficient to make it work, then cellular networks would be loaded with multimedia data. If all you heard was the hype at the recent 3GSMWorld in Barcelona about video to mobile handsets, you would believe streaming to mobile phones was mainstream. The fact is that streaming is only available under special circumstances and in premium-rate packages. Virtually all the media being delivered to cellular subscribers in 2006 is either downloaded (and most of this is music) or, in the case of Universal Mobile Telecommunications System UMTS subscribers, being sent from the operator or content owner’s streaming server in a 64kbps circuit-switched connection (i.e., the video call to a streaming server provides the pipe). While both of these strategies provide 3G subscribers a taste of what’s to come, neither of these delivery routes are going to meet the needs of the up-and-coming mobile generation.

Talk of the Town
Two major technology trends featured at 3GSM World are laying the ground work for the natural extension of what is already available and mature on the Internet: improvements in the networks and changes in mobile handsets.

On the network side of the equation, speakers at the conference broke down the issues into bandwidth and management. On the bandwidth front, there should be no doubt: vendors have more solutions than fingers on their hands. One of the remedies, at least in markets where UMTS is the radio network technology of choice, is to increase the bandwidth using High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA). Some operators, such as Cingular in the U.S. and several in Europe where UMTS already is popular, are trying this strategy with a little help from Lucent and others. Verizon’s V Cast uses a completely different strategy: where interactivity is low, use broadcast technology.

Broadcasting to handsets completely sidesteps the streaming paradigm. Although to some it seems to turn back the clock to the old days of television, it avoids the DRM question as well—after all, who needs DRM in broadcast? In the broadcast-to-handset arena, the vendors exhibiting and speaking at 3GSMWorld are quite clear in their preferences. Although there are several alternatives, the DVB-H standard will be consuming most of the industry’s attention and getting the greatest investments. Behind the scenes, however, there is concern that the DVB-H may take too long to deliver on its promise.

The second major trend of importance for streaming technology watchers is the emergence of new handsets from leaders like Nokia and Samsung. No fewer than 10 cellular handsets are being introduced for WiFi networks, making the use of one device in multiple networks much more attractive. And it’s clear that as long as congestion is managed, WiFi networks are already well suited to streaming media.

Perspective from the Media Machines
According to C├ędric Ponsot, president of Universal Mobile International, which produces and distributes personalization and content services for cell phone users across Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania, the problems that remain for content producers can be boiled down to three words: lack of standards. Among the 200+ varieties of 3G handsets, there are too many differences in the displays, the processing power, and the software in handsets for media to be ready and cached for all these permutations. Once again, people are murmuring about how the next technology evolution will implement the TV tuner model for reception of broadcast channels in mobile handsets.

Content and Cash Registers
Even if the technology hurdles were overcome overnight, the consensus among experts gathered in Barcelona is that consumers are not just looking for the same content on a smaller screen for a higher price. Content needs to be customized and miniaturized. Business issues—how the value chain will work—are equally problematic and far from resolved, according to those on the podium such as MTV chief digital officer Jason Hirschhorn. Most vendors and even some who attended on behalf of the media industry tried to cover up their differences for the benefit of the future mobile industry but anyone listening carefully to the keynotes and sessions focusing on mobile TV could easily hear the sounds of conflict.

At the end of the day, mobile networks are still part of the telecommunications industry and even the most enlightened broadcasters understand and still embrace tried-and-true business models.

Replay
Some of what was heard at 3GSMWorld in 2006 sounded like any of dozens of all-night debates conducted in 1996 about the Internet and future of streaming media. Let’s hope that some of the streaming industry’s mistakes—promotion of numerous proprietary file formats at the expense of standards, over-utilization of special editing effects (such as new fonts), and heavyweight vendors giving away antiquated and underperforming streaming platforms in order to accrue market share or close other deals—can be avoided. At this point, however, streaming to handsets is still a technology story with its own twists, turns, vocabulary, and advocates—but no proven, successful business models.

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