Why Qualcomm thinks LTE-broadcast will work where FLO TV failed

Remember FLO TV? Qualcomm’s(s qcom) mobile broadcast TV service went live in 2007, promising to deliver digital video content to mobile phones all over the country. The network was supposed to be a proof-of-concept on the grandest scale, generating enthusiasm for Qualcomm’s proprietary MediaFLO multicast technology across the globe. The reality turned out to be much different.

No one seemed interested in paying a subscription fee for TV programming they already got at home. Nor were they interested in buying the special MediaFLO phones necessary to receive that broadcast signal. After limping along for three years, Qualcomm shut it down in 2010 and eventually sold its spectrum to AT&T(s t).

Now Qualcomm is back on the live TV bandwagon, beating the drum over a new video and data multicast technology called LTE-broadcast. Recently I had a chance to catch up with Neville Meijers, VP of business development for Qualcomm, and I asked him the obvious: Didn’t Qualcomm learn its lesson with FLO TV?

Meijers readily acknowledged that FLO TV was a failure, but he claimed it wasn’t a failure of technology. Nor did Qualcomm misidentify the demand for live video content, he said. “At the end of the day it came down to economics,” Meijers concluded.

Why FLO didn’t flow

FLO TV failed for many reasons, but the biggest one was the huge ecosystem every participating player had to buy into to make the whole thing work. FLO required specialty chipsets, and thus specialty devices. It required new spectrum and a new network, and it even necessitated the negotiation of content rights to redistribute any program being broadcast. Those are huge hurdles to overcome, requiring big investments from both carrier and consumer.

Many multiple TVs videoIf FLO had been a cheap service that you could use over any phone, then it could have worked, but the argument is moot, Meijers said. Qualcomm isn’t trying to recreate FLO TV with a new technology. Instead, Meijers said, Qualcomm views LTE-broadcast as a different kind of service proposition altogether: a means of easing congestion on carriers’ mobile data networks to make all kinds of streamed multimedia content more accessible and cheaper for consumers.

Unlike MediaFLO, LTE-broadcast doesn’t require new phones and new networks, and it uses standards-based, not proprietary, technology. What that means is carriers will be able to use their existing LTE infrastructure and spectrum through hardware upgrades for broadcast and future generations of radio chipsets will automatically support the feature.

What’s more, implementing LTE-broadcast doesn’t mean sacrificing capacity on the regular LTE network, Meijers said. If the network isn’t broadcasting content — or if no one in a cell is watching that content — it simply reverts to its normal unicast LTE state. For those reasons operators are much more enthusiastic about LTE-broadcast than they were in MediaFLO’s dedicated network model. The first trial networks will show up this year, but we won’t see LTE-broadcast on a meaningful scale until 2014, Meijers said.

What can you do with a broadcast network?

If LTE-broadcast was just about live TV, it probably wouldn’t work. As I wrote in January, there just aren’t that many live TV events that would get multiple users on the same cell all watching the same program — the Superbowl, the Oscars and the State of Union Address don’t happen every day.

But Meijers said that there is a lot of content beyond video that carriers or third-party content providers can ship to multiple phones simultaneously. For instance, instead of having each phone individually downloading app, device firmware, OS updates; operators could ship a updates in a gigantic batches to all users. Take a widely used app like Facebook(s fb) — an update to its iOS software could hit hundreds of devices in the same cell simultaneously, eating up a fraction of the cell’s bandwidth.

michigan-stadiumLTE-broadcast could also be used to provide unique content at specific locations, Meijers said. At a football game, for instance, all of the cells serving the stadium could feature live video from every TV camera pointed at the field.

And while FLO TV may have failed, carriers are still interested in other video models, Meijer said. Instead of trying to convince customers to watch TV on a schedule, carriers could turn phones into miniature DVRs. At set times of the day they would broadcast programming, whether its popular YouTube(s goog) videos or HBO’s Game of Thrones, which your phone could then would scoop out of the air and store for later viewing – if you have a subscription, of course.

“There are operators that have close alliances with television providers, particularly overseas,” Meijers said. “They want to offer over-the-top video services of their own.”

Right now watching an entire season of Game of Thrones streamed to your tablet over a mobile network is prohibitively expensive given the amount of data you would consume. But what if HBO paid Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) to broadcast every new series episode to all of its HBO Go subscribers when the show aired each week? Since the program is broadcast to millions of devices simultaneously and then recorded in memory, it would cost Verizon little in network resources. That would allow it to exempt what would normally be gigabytes of data from its monthly data caps. Now that’s a compelling case for LTE-broadcast.

TVs photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Peter Sobolev