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eMBMS: Revolutionary Technology or Alphabet Soup?

Aditya Kishore

I remember writing about MBMS (Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services) back in 2006, and I'm sure many people in the industry had heard about it well before then.

A 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specification, it was designed for broadcast and multicast services via a cellular network. The primary goal was to enable efficient delivery of multimedia content and software to handsets.

Despite intense debate on the impact it would have on TV broadcasting, it never took off. Nor, in fact, did various other mobile broadcasting initiatives, including DVB-T, DVB-H, and MediaFLO. (See Qualcomm Open to Selling FLO TV Unit.)

Now, as operators transition their networks to LTE, a new mobile broadcasting initiative is being launched. And like most LTE-oriented terminology, it has an "e" in front of it. But is there really more to it than the extra letter?

Why now?
eMBMS is certainly driving operator interest. Several have commissioned trials, including SingTel, Vodafone Germany, Telstra, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, and Filipino operator Smart Communications, among others. And South Korean operator KT has already launched an LTE broadcast service as of January 2014.

So why go back to yet another mobile broadcast technology? Operators and the vendors involved make strong arguments in favor of eMBMS:

  • Traffic offload: Mobile traffic is growing at a staggering rate. Data traffic will grow tenfold between 2013 and 2019, according to Ericsson's November 2013 Mobility Report. And video is clearly the driver. Even in interviews I conducted in late 2011, it already comprised the majority of network traffic for some operators. Cisco now predicts that video will be responsible for two-thirds of all mobile traffic in 2017. Even if you disagree with the specific number and forecasts, there is no question video traffic is growing on mobile networks. As such, it would be helpful to operators to be able to offload content that creates spikes in their network. Live sports and other hugely popular events such as the Obama inauguration and the Royal Wedding could simply be broadcast live at high quality rather than offered via unicast streams over a congested network.
  • Cost optimization: In addition to improving end-user QoE, eMBMS can also help with network optimization and cost efficiency. Vendors report that even if three viewers are tuned into the same video content, broadcast is a more network efficient approach than unicast streaming. Obviously, this also affects the scalability of the network.
  • New apps/services: eMBMS also enables delivery of additional content and new applications. For example, an LTE broadcast service in a sports stadium could offer replays, multiple camera angles, statistics etc. These capabilities could also enable new revenue for operators, via contests, paid polling, and advertising.
  • Dynamic resource allocation: The most important difference between MBMS and eMBMS (apart from the extra "e", of course) is that eMBMS allows for network resources to be dynamically allocated by the operator. An operator can choose to dedicate network capacity in a particular area for a particular event to broadcast services, and then re-allocate that capacity to regular data traffic once the event is complete. This was a huge hurdle in the adoption of MBMS, according to operators I spoke to, and is the primary reason they are now reconsidering mobile broadcast.

    Yes, but…
    There are also a few important arguments that run counter to those outlined above.

  • Limited use-cases: The most compelling use-case for eMBMS seems to be in-stadium broadcasts of supplementary content (i.e. replays, multiple camera angles, statistics, and so on). It is also likely that broadcasts of live sporting and other events could be another attractive option, though there are some considerations around time-shifting preferences of viewers. There's also a potential opportunity for software downloads and M2M communication. Beyond that, it isn't immediately clear what other use-cases mobile broadcasting would serve in a compelling way.
  • Indoor coverage issues: One operator also mentioned issues with indoor reception. This could be an important concern since seamless, anywhere access is an important part of the mobile video value-proposition.
  • LTE penetration: LTE penetration is still comparatively limited. While way more than 100 operators worldwide have launched LTE, that doesn't mean LTE is necessarily available across their entire network today. Nor is all user equipment LTE-capable, even within covered areas. According to GSMA Intelligence, LTE will account for just 4% of the world's mobile connections by 2015. As such, LTE-based services will be limited in their impact and scope for years to come.
  • Eco-system development: Mobile TV broadcasting will require agreements among a wide variety of value-chain stakeholders and technologies. While technology vendors can be pushed into moving faster, any new form of TV distribution has always been held up by licensing agreements, release windows, local market black-outs and exclusivity clauses and various other content acquisition hurdles. eMBMS will likely be delayed while rights owners sign off on the service. Other eco-system players, such as stadium and venue owners, will also be required to join, as well as advertisers (if it is to be a revenue-generating service).
  • Déjà vu: Many of the benefits listed earlier were also stated when 3G was being deployed. It's important to remember that mobile broadcasting did not find success then, and nor did new revenue models emerge, a new business eco-system develop, etc. You have to ask: Why should it all fall into place now?

    More questions than answers
    It seems that at least for now, eMBMS raises more questions than answers. LTE leaders such as South Korea, Japan, the US, and Australia may be able to move faster than the rest of the world, but for the rest, eMBMS will take time. Issues such as LTE coverage, device penetration, use-cases that are technically viable and economically sound, the development of revenue models, and a functional business eco-system incorporating content owners, venue owners, advertisers, enterprises (for some suggested M2M scenarios), still remain to be resolved.

    Still, eMBMS does offer potential solutions for some critical problems, not least of which is smoothing out spikes in mobile video traffic due to highly popular one-off events.

    Operators also point out that mobile usage behaviors have evolved in recent years. Tablet and smartphone viewing of video is growing rapidly, with Ooyala's Q4 Global Index predicting that half of all online video viewing will be done on mobile and tablet devices by 2016. This not only means more traffic on mobile networks over time, but also more demand -- and potentially willingness to pay -- for mobile broadcast services.

    Lastly, the dynamic resource capability is particularly important, as operators no longer have to hard-wire broadcast capacity into their networks.

    As such, I would expect eMBMS will largely be evaluated over the next two years, with broad deployments only building up subsequently.

    — Aditya Kishore, Principal Analyst, Diametric Analysis .

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    User Rank: Light Beer
    4/12/2014 | 3:04:43 AM
    re: What is the biz case
    The 'case' is assuming that broadcast will lead or takeover the personal consumption. Today, majority of people seen having a personal or unique genre of entertainment habbits over mobiles. Also, gone were the days of the assumption where people just use mobile device to watch TV :)

    IMHO, this may not even see mass deployment.
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