Remember those twitchy portable TVs you used to carry to ballgames or to the beach, the ones where if you shifted your position to get more sun, the picture went from jittery to static? Then you had to twist you body into an Annie's Pretzel to get some semblance of a viewable picture, and then you had to slightly but constantly adjust your position or the antenna's to compensate for a gust of wind, or your arm holding the TV dropped, or someone sitting next to you, or you looked at it funny, or…?
Once analog TV broadcasting got turned off, so did the signal to these skittish portable analog TVs. And once digital television got turned on, we were supposed to get MDTV (mobile digital television, aka ATSC-M/H – Advanced Television Systems Committee-Mobile/Handheld, the technical name of the MDTV standard) built into cell phones, portable DVD players, portable TVs and antenna/tuner dongles to turn your PC or laptop into a TV to receive signals over-the-air from your local TV stations.
These MDTVs represent a startling improvement over their fickle analog predecessors. MDTV signals are practically bulletproof – you get a perfect picture anywhere in the station's digital coverage area, as still and steady as if you were sunk in your home sofa watching HDTV cable, even in a train or automobile moving at 30 even 40 or 50 MPH.
Or at least they will when we can finally buy one.
Where are our MDTVs?
MDTV has been an "any day now" promise for more than a year. I saw samples of a multitude of MDTV gadgets – cell phones, portable DVD players, portable TVs and dongles – at last year's Consumer Electronic Show and at the January 2009 show. The MDTV standard was adopted by the FCC in October 2009. Broadcasters were "poised to roll out an array of digital program services," which would include multiple broadcast streams from each station, according to the industry organization promoting the MTDV standard.
But only 50-60 out of more than 1,600 U.S. broadcast stations have gone from "poised" to actually transmitting MDTV streams (each station can broadcast multiple streams of digital content, some free, some pay-ver-view).
So where are our MDTVs?
They're coming. Sort of. The problem has been the broadcasters, who have been trying to get their content ducks in a row. We may get shows for free, but stations have to pay for them.
Wait till next year!
Once the MDTV standard was passed, two MDTV content organizations sprung up: the Mobile Content Venture (MCV) and the Mobile500 Alliance. The former group is made of up of larger broadcasters in large markets led by Fox and NBC and also includes content providers, the latter comprised of smaller broadcasters in smaller markets. Each may have separate business issues concerning content acquisition, but both are pursuing the same goal – getting content, both free and pay, on the digital mobile air.
Earlier this month, the MCV announced "a commitment" (I guess they weren't quite as "poised" as originally thought) to get at least two TV stations in 20 markets to begin transmitting ad-supported free-to-consumer MDTV channels by late 2011.
Mobile500 hasn't announced any analogous MDTV rollout plans for its smaller member stations, possibly because it just hired a new executive director, but I'm told a similar announcement is forthcoming.
MDTV devices to come – and not
Thousands of us in the U.S. can view MDTV. Check out this list of MDTV cities, those on the air now and those upcoming.
We'll be seeing a lot more MDTV product at the upcoming CES (check back January 4 for some early announcements), including more laptop dongles, more portable TVs and DVD players, and especially the first commercially available MDTV-enabled phones from LG and Samsung, prototypes of which I've seen at the last two CESs (including the Samsung cell phone in the photo above). Most of these new MDTV devices likely will be available this coming summer.
Don't expect either iPad 2 or iPhone 5 to include built-in MDTV reception, however. Apple likes to make one device that'll work anywhere in the world, and our digital TV technology, is a U.S. standard only. There are multiple non-compatible MDTV standards around the rest of the world, which already have been enjoying mobile digital TV content for years.
Soon, the U.S. will be joining the rest of the mobile digital television viewing world. Literally, stay tuned.