MediaFLO TV Coming to Cars, MP3 Players

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Qualcomm's MediaFLO wireless broadcast network will soon be available on in-car and portable media players, and the company plans to bring it to other consumer electronics as well.

The network, made up of dedicated antennas using former analog TV channels, sends several channels of digital TV to mobile handsets. Verizon Wireless was the first carrier to sell a service based on MediaFLO, in 2007, and AT&T Mobility joined in last year. Both services start at US$15 per month for about a dozen channels.

But Qualcomm isn't satisfied with consumer adoption so far, Chief Operating Officer Len Lauer said Thursday during a wide-ranging interview on stage at the Mobilize conference in San Francisco. In response, the company is expanding the types of devices that can carry MediaFLO and will also push it as an infrastructure for mobile operators to deliver other types of content.

"We need to be on a lot more devices," Lauer told Stacey Higginbotham, a staff writer for The GigaOm Network, which organized the conference. This month, Qualcomm will announce a product with Audiovox that brings FLO TV to in-car entertainment systems so consumers can watch broadcasts on LCD while traveling. It will take about six months for that product to reach dealers, he said. Lauer said there are about 24 million vehicles in the U.S. with video screens in the backseat area.

The range of products that carry MediaFLO will expand significantly next year, he said. The idea is to add live TV to portable music players, handheld gaming devices, personal navigation devices and other such platforms. "You'll see us come out with an MP3-like device fairly soon that also has a full FLO TV capability," Lauer said. There are also accessories in the works with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB connectivity to connect with existing phones to deliver the service.

Qualcomm is also pushing the MediaFLO network to help carriers solve the problem of rapidly growing demand on their mobile data networks. Demand for data capacity is rising by 400 percent per year, and half of that is video viewing, Lauer said. The carriers could use the MediaFLO network to offload some high-demand content that currently has to travel over their existing 3G networks, he said. MediaFLO could take certain widely requested items, such as weather reports, stock reports and the current top 10 YouTube clips, and deliver them to handsets in the background. After being cached on phones, that content would be quickly available to subscribers without taxing the already busy 3G infrastructure, he said.

MediaFLO will have a national network by year's end, reaching about 200 million U.S. residents, after the buildout was held up by delays in the U.S. digital TV transition, Lauer said. It could provide the offload capability to carriers at much lower cost than the existing TV service because there would be no cost for the rights to content, he said.

In the same on-stage conversation, Lauer said Qualcomm is doing long-term research into radio systems that might allow mobile devices to communicate directly with each other, bypassing the cellular network. This technology could help carriers overcome the limitations of their networks, which won't get significant new radio spectrum for several years, he said. Such a system might use both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, but it would probably use a different, lower-frequency band than is used in cellular today, according to Lauer. Qualcomm's research is internal, but other companies are exploring the same idea, he said. Cambridge University researchers recently published a paper on "pocket-switched networks" that would allow communication among wireless devices without the need for cellular networks.

Femtocells, tiny base stations that subscribers set up in their homes with their own broadband connections as wired network links, are a more immediate solution to the capacity problem but face challenges with interference, Lauer said.

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