Can LTE-broadcast dam the mobile video deluge?

Verizon(s vz) CEO Lowell McAdam’s CES 2013 keynote on Tuesday night wasn’t the news-extravaganza T-Mobile pulled off nearby, but he did let one interesting tidbit drop. While chatting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, McAdam mentioned Verizon hoped to have the technology in place to “broadcast” the biggest U.S. sporting event, the Super Bowl, in 2014.

By broadcast, McAdam was referring to LTE-broadcast, one of the many multicast technologies that’s been kicking around the wireless industry for years. LTE-broadcast would turn cell towers into the equivalent of mini-digital TV towers that could multicast video, audio and even data to multiple users simultaneously.

verizon-4g-lteRight now mobile multimedia works through an on-demand unicast model. Every time you stream a video or a song to your smartphone, you get your own dedicated portion of the cell’s capacity to deliver your content, even if the guy right next to you is watching the same program. That unicast model and video’s intensive bandwidth demands explain why mobile video is such a network hog.

LTE-broadcast, however, would turn a portion of a network’s bandwidth into a multicast network, sending a single video or audio stream to multiple devices similar to the way TV and radio towers broadcast their programming.

If this all sounds familiar, you’re probably recalling Qualcomm’s(s qcom) FLO TV service of the last decade, which shut down in 2010 for lack of subscribers, devices and compelling content. Or perhaps the TV broadcasters’ own Dyle mobile digital TV initiative, which appears to be going nowhere very slowly. But there are some pretty key differences between those efforts and the LTE-broadcast technology that McAdam is talking about.

Qualcomm’s FLO technology required (and Dyle requires) a special receiver and therefore a dedicated TV handset to receive their respective transmissions. That pretty much doomed them from the beginning. But LTE-broadcast is based on the evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (eMBMS) technology being standardized for LTE. Chipmakers like Qualcomm have already committed to supporting eMBMS in their future radio silicon. That means future handsets will be pretty much eMBMS-ready whether carriers chose to use the technology or not.

eMBMS also uses the same LTE radio infrastructure, requiring only upgrades to the network core. So if a carrier decides to get into the broadcast business, the equipment is largely in place. The barriers to entry are much lower for LTE-broadcast, but there’s still one big question: will consumers actually use it?

The age of personalized multimedia

hbo goThe problem is that an increasingly technically savvy public is moving away from broadcast models completely when it comes to digital content. Consumers are personalizing their radios with Pandora(s p) and Spotify. The reason HBO Go rocks is we don’t have to be at home a pre-determined hour –- or set our DVRs –- to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones. We just pull content out of the air whenever we please.

There are still plenty of people consuming broadcast video and audio on their TVs and car stereos, but on smartphones and tablets streaming is king. By imposing a broadcast model, carriers would be going against mobile data trends.

That’s why McAdam highlighted the Super Bowl as the ideal use case for LTE-broadcast. Blockbuster live events would attract hundreds of thousands of simultaneous viewers that would best make use of the technology. Verizon already streams entire NFL games through its NFL Mobile app, so being able to multicast those games would save it enormous amounts of network capacity — or so you might think.

There are a lot of cells out there

The thing about mobile networks is that they’re much denser than TV broadcast networks. Instead of using a single tower to cover a whole city, hundreds if not thousands of towers — each sporting multiple sectors — blanket any given metropolis with mobile broadband. Even if thousands of people in the same city are watching the same game on their phones, chances are few of them are going to be in the same cells at the same time. Multicasting effectively becomes unicasting if there is only one person receiving the transmission.

Nokia Siemens Networks' conception of a heterogeneous network
Nokia Siemens Networks’ conception of a heterogeneous network

What’s more, cells will start shrinking and multiplying as carriers begin deploying small cells and heterogeneous network (HetNet) architectures. The more cells in the networks, the less chance you’ll have users simultaneously streaming the same content in any given cell, unless you’re talking about big events. But playoff games and the State of the Union Addresses don’t occur everyday.

According to a new research report from iGR, carriers are weighing those factors, and some of them are leaning towards deploying LTE-broadcast selectively, targeting venues where people are most likely to stream the same content. Airports would be a good example, but so would a sports arena. Ticketholders might be watching the same games live, but they could all view the same replay videos simultaneously.

The iGR report also proposes that LTE-broadcast could turn our phones and tablets into mobile DVRs. We could subscribe to particular TV programs on apps like HBO Go. At set times, the LTE-broadcast network would schedule the download of various shows, beaming them down to thousands if not millions of devices simultaneously and caching them for later consumption. There’s nothing to prevent LTE-broadcast from being used for other types of media or data like digital magazines or device OS updates.

iGR projects that mobile video will account for 71 percent of mobile network data traffic in 2016. By utilizing LTE-broadcast, the study concludes, carriers could reduce capacity demand on their networks by 12.5 percent overall and by 15 percent at peak hours, the study found. The bottom line is unicast on-demand video will remain supreme, but a 15 percent capacity savings when the network needs it most is certainly nothing to scoff at.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Peter Sobolev