Nokia tinkers with the idea of turning LTE into a TV broadcast network

Nokia’s(s nok) network division is conducting an interesting experiment in Munich. It’s taking TV airwaves that have been earmarked for future LTE mobile broadband networks and then using those airwaves and LTE networks to transmit plain old live broadcast TV content.

If broadcast TV is what you’re after, it seems a lot simpler to just leave TV stations in the 700 MHz UHF band rather than auction or transfer those frequencies to mobile carriers. But that’s one of the fascinating conundrums of the spectrum world: As regulators repurpose different bands for different uses, the content and services we’re seeing on these airwaves is often the same. It’s just delivered using different — and hopefully more efficient — technologies.

Older FLO TV devices from Qualcomm that went dark when the network shut down (Source: Qualcomm)
Older FLO TV devices from Qualcomm that went dark when the network shut down (Source: Qualcomm)

In the case of Nokia’s trial with German broadcast company Bayerischer Rundfunk, a chunk of 700 MHz spectrum is being used to deliver TV programming to phones and tablets using a technology called LTE Broadcast. I’ve written before about Verizon and AT&T’s LTE Broadcast efforts in the U.S. They want to use a portion of their LTE capacity to multicast the same content or data to many users at once. For instance, LTE Broadcast could stream replay video clips to all of the spectators at a sporting event simultaneously or send out mass app updates to millions of devices at once.

The difference between the German trials and the U.S. trials is that Nokia is using LTE Broadcast being to recreate a traditional broadcast network in which every cell site acts like a TV tower sending the same video signals to everyone in the same country or city. But instead of our TVs tapping into those signals, our phones and other mobile devices are the receivers.

So why bother with LTE? Why not just use traditional TV networks?

According to Nokia, this is a way for broadcasters to extend their reach beyond TVs to millions of mobile devices without requiring any special kind of radio or receiver. LTE Broadcast is part of a global mobile industry standard and it will be supported in all future 4G devices. Another reason is it doesn’t cost the consumer anything against their data plan. There’s just a single video stream coming the tower, regardless of whether one person or a thousand are accessing it.

Photo from Thinkstock/Tomasz Wyszoamirski
Photo from Thinkstock/Tomasz Wyszoamirski

What Nokia is trying to prove is that LTE networks can pull double duty as both mobile broadband and digital TV broadcast networks, with a portion of their spectrum designated to each applications. Broadcasters or cable networks would pay carriers for the use of the spectrum and infrastructure, and they’d either distribute their content to consumers for free or for a fee.

Perhaps such a model would work in Europe or other regions of the world where mobile digital TV has taken off, but the U.S. is probably not a big candidate. In the U.S., Qualcomm(s qcom) a very similar experiment several years ago with FLO TV and it failed miserably. There may be a niche for LTE-Broadcast in new forms of content distribution and data-casting, but when it comes to TV watching, it looks like Americans would much rather get their video on demand than pull it from a common broadcast signal.