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Summary:

AT&T is using old MediaFLO spectrum it bought off of Qualcomm to create a broadcast service. The mobile industry has had little success with multicast video in the past, but it has high hopes for LTE-Broadcast.

AT&T hopes to breath new life into some old airwaves by building a broadcast network, ideal for pushing out live video to many multiple devices with out jamming up its pipes with traffic. The technology is called LTE-Broadcast, and as it name implies it turns what is normally a two-way mobile broadband network into a one-way multicast network similar to those used by TV broadcasters.

Announcing the new project at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said AT&T’s mobile focus is “all about architecting networks to deliver video,” FierceWireless reported. The new network will also give AT&T a use for the old MediaFLO airwaves it bought off Qualcomm in 2011 after it shut down its FLO TV experiment. Stephenson didn’t say exactly when they new network would go live, though he hinted at a three-year horizon.

I’ve written plenty in the past about how LTE-Broadcast works as well as its benefits and limitations, but basically you can think of its as a very dense TV network. Instead of blanketing an entire city with a few high-powered TV towers, LTE-Broadcast turns every cell site into broadcast transmitter. Each cell can use its spectrum to broadcast different content, but every device within the same cell receives the same transmissions. That’s ideal for certain types of real-time content.

Cowboys Stadium in Arlington

LTE-Broadcast’s best use case is for big live events like the Super Bowl, which could be watched by millions of people simultaneously. But the distributed nature of the LTE network could also let carriers tailor individual broadcast content for very specific locations. Cell sites at a stadium could send out a constant play-by-play feed as well as transmit highlights and replays to thousands of phone and tablets simultaneously.

LTE-Broadcast also isn’t limited to data. It could datacast real-time stock quotes, sports scores and news. It could also be used as a very efficient way to deliver subscription content or send out app and OS updates en masse. For instance, when a new episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones is available, an LTE-Broadcast network could simultaneously ship it to every HBO Go subscriber’s mobile device, which would then store the episode for later viewing. Performing such a feat on the regular LTE would simply inundate the network with thousands of concurrent downloads – a recipe for disaster.

The conundrum carriers face, though, is whether they can find enough of these kind of applications to justify the investment in infrastructure and spectrum necessary to support LTE-Broadcast. Unlike other mobile broadcast technologies like MediaFLO, though, LTE-Broadcast doesn’t require a special chip or radio in the phone. It’s part of the LTE standard.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user valdis torms; Cowboys Stadium photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Ken Durden

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  1. None of this makes any sense given the high cost of mobile bandwidth. Even if I bought more bandwidth (at approx $10 per GByte per month) I find watching video on my Android phone to be a painful experience due to the small screen. Of course I could watch it on my laptop provided it’s tethered to my phone (another $15 a month of course to get the tethering feature of course).

    AT&T should focus on their core business: extortion and cartels.

    1. What you are thinking of is one-to-one internet browsing and such, which has multiple streams of data going back and forth between 2 endpoints. Broadcast is something that everyone receives “live”, so it is a single stream of data sent from one endpoint but is received by everyone on the network. Compare phone conversation to a radio or a cable TV broadcast. Other than replacing cable TV, I cannot think of a good use for such network in today’s age.

  2. LTE is not an Internet Network thus bandwidth is not involved. This is HUGE news!

  3. I see that it doesn’t involve any new hardware on the device side but free mobile digital TV already exists and is free over the air. They will have to find a way to monetize this so I can’t see it being free.

  4. ESPN3/WatchESPN, NFL Sunday Ticket & HBOGo are 3 prime candidates to benefit from ATT’s LTE-Broadcast Network.

  5. Ralph Barbagallo Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    Because MediaFLO worked so well the first time.

    1. Not comparable. MediaFLO required separate hardware which makes it extremely hard to get off the ground. LTE broadcast uses existing LTE hardware.

  6. Interesting, but in an On-Demand world I’m not sure broadcast matters any more. I’ll call it a loser, just based on this.

  7. The best way to achieve that purpose remains to crowdsource the connectivity through all the participants to an event. Peer-to-peer video and sharing the local network can do the same with almost no investment. It is time to leverage the network from its edge and welcome the new Internet. :-)

  8. “For instance, when a new episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones is available, an LTE-Broadcast network could simultaneously ship it to every HBO Go subscriber’s mobile device, which would then store the episode for later viewing. ”

    If it’s broadcast, how does the network deliver the content to exactly HBO subscribers?

    1. Hi Marat,

      It’s broadcast in the sense a single transmission goes to many, but it’s not broadcast in the sense that its free-to-air. Think of it like a satellite TV service. The signals are hitting everybody but only authorized subscribers can access the content.

  9. Is it eMBMS? If so, then hardware supporting the technology is required.

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