The LTE-Broadcast Alliance was formed 18 months ago to try to inject much-needed momentum into the technology, but progress has been disappointingly slow, according to Matt Stagg, head of mobile video and content at EE, a founder member (with Telstra, KT and Verizon).
“I’d expected us to have it commercially live by now,” he told Mobile Europe. The technology allows a single piece of content or data to be distributed to multiple users simultaneously by broadcast or multicast, in the same piece of spectrum, which can improve the spectral efficiency and user experience in applications like mobile TV, over-the-air updates, interactive advertising and others.
The killer app was seen as the streaming of live video to huge numbers of users, especially at events such as sports games though operators have devised other ways to address the perennial challenge of meeting the rise in mobile video usage without crashing their networks. For instance, there have been tests of pre-loading much-used content and then unlocking it on a release date to all the relevant subscribers.
But uptake is still limited, although a few operators, such as Reliance Jio in India, have implemented the technology to improve the cost of video delivery, without necessarily taking part in the Alliance. Stagg, in the interview, said he thought one issue was that LTE-B has been too closely associated with video streaming, because of its ‘Broadcast’ label, and the high profile of trials in stadiums. In fact, the use cases are far broader, and could be enhanced further in the Internet of Things, which will require updates to vast numbers of end points.
Qualcomm, which supports the technology on its Snapdragon processors, recently joined the Alliance, but Jio has said this option is too expensive to be implemented in mass market devices, and Stagg points out that many handsets lack the middleware needed to link the chipset and the software. A particular gap is the lack of support in iPhones.
Nitesh Patel, director of wireless media strategies at research firm Strategy Analytics, says LTE-B carries a “not insignificant” cost to incorporate in devices, though of course, that would be improved by scale.
Even EE has not yet moved beyond trials of streaming BBC broadcasts during sporting events, though Stagg says is would launch if there were sufficient “handset density”. Elsewhere, Telstra plans to launch LTE-B on its network nationally in 2018 and is already offering a 24-hour linear streaming channel. Verizon uses the technology for specific, mainly sports-related offerings like streaming live car racing through its IndyCar app; and KT has used LTE-B in live broadcasts since 2015.
Stagg is now concerned that the industry will deprioritize LTE-B and wait for new broadcast/multicast options when 5G arrives. EE is involved in the EU-backed 5G-Xcast project, which focuses on mass media delivery.