LTE broadcast may help Qualcomm salvage Flo TV

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LTE broadcast could make video and other content run better on smartphones and tablets, and the emerging technology has at least one highly motivated backer in mobile chipmaker Qualcomm.

The system, based on the LTE mobile network standard, is designed to let carriers set aside part of their radio spectrum to deliver the same content to multiple subscribers. If enough people want that content, broadcasting is more efficient than sending a lot of individual streams, so it can bring customers higher quality or free up network capacity for other purposes.

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For Qualcomm, the prospect of LTE broadcast may sell more chips, such as its Snapdragon line of processors for mobile devices. But the technology also represents a chance for the San Diego company to salvage something valuable from FLO TV, a four-year dalliance with broadcasting that failed.

TV on the fly

The idea behind FLO TV was to deliver programming over a dedicated network that carriers could resell to their subscribers and that devices could tap into if they had the right silicon and antennas. Users could tune into former TV channels in many major U.S. cities and watch a special lineup of shows, including some live TV, as it was broadcast over the airwaves. Monthly rates varied, but at one point Verizon Wireless charged US$15 per month for ten channels.

Qualcomm put significant resources into FLO TV, buying up TV licenses in major cities and developing specialized device hardware. Some carriers also bought into it, with both AT&T and Verizon offering the service to their subscribers. The company also made deals in some foreign countries.

But about four years after its 2007 debut, FLO TV shut down. The need for special chips and antennas in phones was just one problem, said Peggy Johnson, an executive vice president of Qualcomm and head of global market development. It also proved hard to reach subscribers with the network because they were watching indoors, not outdoors as Qualcomm had expected, she said. And as a newcomer to the broadcasting business, the company found it couldn't get good deals on content rights.

Drawing from experience

But Qualcomm thinks LTE broadcast will prove that all its work was worthwhile, even aside from the sale of its TV licenses to AT&T for nearly $2 billion.

"We knew that broadcast needed to be a piece of the delivery of content, and we proved that out," Johnson said. FLO TV also left Qualcomm with the platform it is now repurposing for LTE broadcast, she said.

Yet LTE broadcast is different from FLO TV in several ways that could brighten its prospects. It uses the same networks that carriers are deploying for their other data services, it's based on an industry standard, and carriers can use it for any type of content that's in broad demand, instead of just a specific set of programming.

Most content on mobile networks is sent over the network on a specific stream or download to a specific user's device, a system called unicasting. If many users want the same content anyway, it's inefficient to send it to each one separately, backers of LTE broadcast say. This becomes a problem especially at large gatherings, such as sports events, where everyone in the stadium is likely to want replays and other content related to the sport, they say.

Easing pressure on networks

LTE broadcast is best for selected content in selected areas, typically dense urban or suburban regions where many people may be trying to access content at the same time, said Neville Meijers, a vice president at Qualcomm. To ease the pressure on their networks, carriers can take a certain percentage of their spectrum on certain cellular base stations away from unicasting and devote it to broadcasting. They'll do that manually at first and later make it happen automatically in response to current conditions, Meijers said.

The content can be anything that takes up a lot of network capacity. In addition to video streams, it can include app and device OS upgrades, which can be delivered to devices overnight during low-demand hours for use the next day. Carriers could also make deals with third parties, such as online video companies, and let them deliver content of interest to their subscribers over the spectrum set aside for LTE broadcast, he said.

Qualcomm is building LTE broadcast capability into its mobile-device chipsets and working with network vendors such as Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent, plus mobile operators, to help drive adoption of the technology that could make its mobile broadcasting idea a hit at last. Verizon Wireless has said it will trial LTE broadcast at the 2014 Super Bowl, Australia's Telstra has also committed to a trial, and Korea Telecom has said it will deploy the technology, Qualcomm officials said.

When it comes to getting LTE broadcast into handsets, device makers may have their own role to play. Apps can be written to use the technology, but it also requires middleware on the device. Manufacturers are free to add that middleware to Android devices, but with iOS, it has to be built into iOS, Meijers said. Current iPhones and iPads run on Apple's own processors, while Qualcomm's Snapdragons have been at the heart of many Samsung Galaxy phones and other devices. Meijers would not comment on Apple's LTE broadcast plans, nor what any other mobile OS player may be doing. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, in the years since Flo TV's demise, Qualcomm believes the mobile boom has only made a stronger case for a broadcasting technology.

"The networks need it more now," Johnson said.

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