LTE Broadcast technology could change mobile video experience

Millions of people already watch video on their smartphones, either on a cellular network or via Wi-Fi, but an emerging technology called LTE Broadcast could make that experience faster, richer and — potentially — less expensive.

The difference between LTE Broadcast and today’s data networks is similar to listening to the radio versus speaking on the phone. When you’re on the phone, it’s a one-to-one conversation: Each call ties up a circuit or uses some Internet bandwidth. When you listen to the radio, it’s one-to-many: Once that radio station sends it signals out over the air, it really doesn’t matter if there is one listener or a million listeners.

Today, when you watch video on a phone or tablet or even when you stream it to your computer or TV, the number of viewers makes a big difference because each viewer uses data and takes up bandwidth. Companies that stream the video need to add server capacity as their audience grows. More important to your pocketbook, you need to pay for the data if you’re watching it via the cellular network.

The amount of data that can be transmitted depends — in large part — on the available radio spectrum, and that’s a finite resource. The FCC allocates that spectrum between broadcast, wireless carriers, emergency services and other data-hungry entities, and there is only so much to go around. Cellular companies pay for access to that spectrum and resell it to their customers by the gigabyte and, because it’s a finite resource, they justify charging customers based on the amount of data they consume.

My wife and I pay more than $100 a month for a cellphone plan that includes 15 gigabytes of shared data and — even with that relatively high amount — we have to be careful not to watch too much streaming video, lest we go over the limit and wind up paying even more.

With LTE Broadcast, it doesn’t matter how many people are consuming the data or how much data you consume. Once a content provider invests in broadcasting a signal to a local tower, there is no incremental cost associated with delivering it to many devices.

LTE Broadcast is still in the experimental stages, but it has been successfully tested at two prominent sporting events. Last year, Verizon used what it calls LTE Multicast to broadcast video of the Indy 500 race to fans in the stands at the raceway in Indianapolis.

“We worked with IndyCar to provide multiple camera angles,” Verizon spokeswoman Debi Lewis said.

Lewis said that race fans were provided loaner devices so that they could watch the video feed on their phone. But Ericsson, Qualcomm and other companies are working on chipsets and firmware that they will license to cell phone makers like Apple and Samsung so that — eventually — this technology will be available to anyone with a compatible phone.

Lewis said that the industry is still in “the early days in terms of a business model” and that there are no commercial applications currently available. She said that LTE Broadcast is ideally suited for live events whether they be sports, news, an award ceremony or “a lecture from a popular professor at a university that could be viewed by students on other campuses.”

One of the features of the technology is the ability to “geocast,” or aim the signal at a specific location or series of locations by limiting which cell towers broadcast the signal. You could, for example, limit the audience to only people within or very near an arena.

Or, said Ericsson Vice President Solomon Israel, “you could actually reverse that example. If you’re not within 100 miles of where the game is being played,” you could be allowed to watch — similar to how TV stations sometimes black out local sporting events to avoid cannibalizing ticket sales.

Israel echoed Lewis’ assertion that the technology is best suited for live events where everyone is watching at the same time. In January, Ericsson worked with AT&T and ESPN to deliver replays and live-action at the college football national championship game at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, demonstrating LTE Broadcast technology from cameras around the field to fans in the stadium who were loaned tablets equipped to receive the signals.

“We’re enabling wireless carriers to provide a business that they couldn’t normally do,” Israel said. “The economics for them wouldn’t allow this to happen with the existing technology. ”

Both Israel and Lewis agree that the technology will mostly be aimed at mobile devices, but it’s theoretically possible to consume LTE Broadcast signals on larger screens, including TV sets. Israel said that it’s possible that companies could sell “dongles with an LTE Broadcast feature,” or TV makers could build it into their sets.

Just because LTE Broadcast is more efficient doesn’t mean that it will be free or even inexpensive. The pricing depends on the business model. It could be paid for by providers who charge for content by the program, there could be ad-supported programs or access to the content could be included in the ticket price of a game for those who watch inside the stadium.