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For Qualcomm, there's more to LTE broadcast than saving networks

Stephen Lawson | March 11, 2013
After stumbling with FLO TV, Qualcomm has something to prove, and that could help make mobile content better.

LTE broadcast could make video and other content run better on smartphones and tablets, and the emerging technology has at least one highly motivated backer in mobile chipmaker Qualcomm.

The system, based on the LTE mobile network standard, is designed to let carriers set aside part of their radio spectrum to deliver the same content to multiple subscribers. If enough people want that content, broadcasting is more efficient than sending a lot of individual streams, so it can bring customers higher quality or free up network capacity for other purposes.

For Qualcomm, the prospect of LTE broadcast may sell more chips, such as its Snapdragon line of processors for mobile devices. But the technology also represents a chance for the San Diego company to salvage something valuable from FLO TV, a four-year dalliance with broadcasting that failed.

The idea behind FLO TV was to deliver programming over a dedicated network that carriers could resell to their subscribers and that devices could tap into if they had the right silicon and antennas. Users could tune into former TV channels in many major U.S. cities and watch a special lineup of shows, including some live TV, as it was broadcast over the airwaves. Monthly rates varied, but at one point Verizon Wireless charged US$15 per month for 10 channels.

Qualcomm put significant resources into FLO TV, buying up TV licenses in major cities and developing specialized device hardware. Some carriers also bought into it, with both AT&T and Verizon offering the service to their subscribers. The company also made deals in some foreign countries.

But about four years after its 2007 debut, FLO TV shut down. The need for special chips and antennas in phones was just one problem, said Peggy Johnson, an executive vice president of Qualcomm and head of global market development. It also proved hard to reach subscribers with the network because they were watching indoors, not outdoors as Qualcomm had expected, she said. And as a newcomer to the broadcasting business, the company found it couldn't get good deals on content rights.

But Qualcomm thinks LTE broadcast will prove that all its work was worthwhile, even aside from the sale of its TV licenses to AT&T for nearly $2 billion.

"We knew that broadcast needed to be a piece of the delivery of content, and we proved that out," Johnson said. FLO TV also left Qualcomm with the platform it is now repurposing for LTE broadcast, she said.

Yet LTE broadcast is different from FLO TV in several ways that could brighten its prospects. It uses the same networks that carriers are deploying for their other data services, it's based on an industry standard, and carriers can use it for any type of content that's in broad demand, instead of just a specific set of programming.


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