Mobile TV: Slow-To-Show ATSC (-M/H) And Qualcomm's Long-Shot FLO TV
and grabbed the only seat still vacant in the front row. Partway through Jacobs’ presentation, he indicated that we in the audience should all look under our seats, where a lucky few would find a gift awaiting us. I was one of the lucky few, as it turned out; taped to the underside of my chair was a flyer offering me a free FLO TV personal television receiver along with six months of free Ultimate channel package service. Strictly speaking, everyone gets six months of free service, but I didn’t need to shell out the $199.99 (originally $249.99, although the per-month service charge has increased since last October presumably to compensate) for the unit.
I took the flyer to Qualcomm’s booth and swapped it for the hardware. When I got home, I attempted to boot up the device to explore the user interface, even though I realized I was too far from Reno (not to mention the intermediary mountain chain) to be able to snag service. The unit powered up, I got to the initial splash screen…and then the FLO TV locked up hard. No key press, not even the power button, would provoke a response. I had to yank out the battery, after first going online to figure out how to get the back panel off, in order to shut the FLO TV down.
I reattempted the boot-up operation several times, with the same result, leaving me unsure as to whether or not my device was defective. A few days later I happened to be in the San Diego area, wherein robust MediaFLO reception existed (one would hope so, considering I was just a few miles from Qualcomm headquarters) and was able successfully boot and activate the unit. Note to Qualcomm and hardware partner HTC: make your firmware sufficiently user-friendly that consumers don’t get a confusing and underwhelming experience when they aren’t in a valid coverage area.
I played with the unit a bit over the next few days and walked away moderately impressed. Here are some relevant specifications:
- Form: Handheld device with viewing stand
- Dimensions: 112×78x13.4mm [4.4×3.1×0.6 inches]
- Weight (with battery) ~ 156g [5.5 ounces)
- Additional size and shape information: fold-out viewing stand
- Battery life: 5 hours active, 300 hours standby
- 3.5" diagonal touchscreen LCD (QVGA resolution) with ambient light sensor and auto backlight control
- Integrated stereo speakers and 3.5mm headphone jack
- 1500 mAh Li-ion battery
Unfortunately, my aspirations to take the device apart for Prying Eyes examination were thwarted by a notably uncooperative Qualcomm PR representative. When I inquired into the availability of a bare PCB that’d potentially preclude me from needing to dissect my unit, here’s what I got back:
With respect to your Prying Eyes teardown, unfortunately, we’re not able to send you a PCB for a review. Also, as you won the device and activated it yourself, our service Terms & Conditions state that users may not disassemble the device.
Thanks for nothing. Ahem.
I also passed along the device to some friends who live in the San Luis Obispo, CA area. They’ve been using it in various regional locations and in both stationary settings and while in the car (passengers only, mind you!), the latter also at various speeds. Even with claimed robust coverage according to Qualcomm’s service map, reception is best-case sub-par inside the car, with frequent bouts of dropped video frames and/or sound and, at worst, lengthy intervals of a completely frozen presentation. Then again, I suspect that stationary viewing, ideally outdoors, was the primary anticipated operating environment for the FLO TV personal receiver; Qualcomm has also partnered with Audiovox for a line of in-car MediaFLO units, which I suspect have (among other things) more robust antenna arrays.
Frankly, adequate reception (at least for me) and content suite aside, I can’t imagine myself ever buying a FLO TV, nor do I think I would extend the service beyond the six-month trial even if I lived in an area with MediaFLO coverage. Admittedly, I’m not much of a television viewer; were I a parent of small children (hello, Nickelodeon!), or a news or sports junkie, I might feel differently. But on-the-go dedicated subscription television hardware just doesn’t hold much appeal to me, especially since I could alternatively (albeit perhaps battery-sappingly) get MediaFLO service on a conventional mobile handset or (via a recently announced adapter from Mophie) even an iPhone or iPod touch. I’m reminded here of the ‘two-device rule’ that I most recently discussed at the beginning of the month…
When Qualcomm launched the device in early October 2009, in fact, I remember wondering why the company was bothering to do so. Qualcomm doesn’t have the brand name consumer cachet of an Intel or Microsoft, after all, and wouldn’t the company’s MediaFLO service partners view FLO TV as a competitive offering? The source of Qualcomm’s motivations, I suspect, may be found in another October 2009 event, that being the finalization of the U.S. ATSC-M/H (mobile/handheld, strictly speaking ‘ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV Vestigial Side Band’) standard roughly three months after proposal.
Long-time readers know that I’ve closely followed ATSC-M/H’s development through several years’ worth of NAB, CES and other conferences. And I confess that its free-to-viewer, advertising-supported business model resonates more strongly with me than that of a subscription-based approach (all of which have to date notably undershot projections) from MediaFLO or another technology, no matter that I understand the dedicated infrastructure cost motivations for the latter. Conversely, as an excellent article from IEEE Spectrum last summer points out, the incremental expense required to add ATSC-M/H capabilities to an existing ATSC broadcast setup are on the order of $100,000, a fraction of the ’sunk’ cost required to migrate from NTSC to ATSC.
Samsung unveiled a standards-supportive chip coincident with ATSC-M/H finalization. LG and Samsung both showed off ATSC-M/H-inclusive cellular handsets at CES, while Vizio unveiled FLO TV-targeting dedicated portable televisions at that same show. I suspect that, if the economy continues to slowly-but-surely recover, you’ll see a decent amount of ATSC-M/H gear available for purchase this Christmas shopping season. And I sincerely hope that the broadcasters won’t squelch their fiscal differentiation-to-consumers versus MediaFLO by attempting to charge extra for ATSC-M/H reception. Then again, though, given content owners’ greediness, the broadcasters may not have a choice but to recoup their investments in ways other than traditional advertising revenues.