In today’s Finshots, we try and make sense of India’s efforts to beam TV channels directly onto mobiles phone without the need for internet data.

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The Story

Back in the day, you’d watch TV — say Doordarshan News by setting up an antenna on top of your roof. The broadcaster would transmit data using radio waves from their station and it would make its way to the antenna in your home. Then we had satellite television. This time the data was cast to a satellite up top and it relayed this information to a “dish” in your home. But as the days went by, we spent less time on TVs and more time on mobile phones. And once we made that switch, we no longer had restrictions on the kind of content we could consume. We didn’t have to wait for the TV station to broadcast a feed. We could consume any content any time any place.

But there’s a difference between the two modes of communication. The first method is traditional linear communication. The broadcaster chooses what content to stream and you consume it passively. Like if you wanted to watch cricket on Star TV, you could do that so long as the broadcaster was streaming it. But if you wanted to watch a tennis match while the cricket feed was on, you couldn’t do it, because you were passive consumers. Star TV decided what it wanted to stream at that given time and you (including millions of others watching the channel) had no choice. And while this is a bit restrictive it did have its upside. For starters, you didn’t need an internet connection. Yes, you needed a different subscription (perhaps cable or satellite), but not internet services. And there was no buffering. Was there ever a time when a cricket match lagged? No! And even though we don’t use broadcast television as much anymore, the infrastructure can still support lag-free linear video/audio experience.

Mobile phones on the other hand offer convenience. As we noted earlier, you can consume content any time you like, any place you like. If you want to watch that tennis match you could do that. All you need is a data pack. The problem is you might have to deal with lag and the connection isn’t very reliable. It breaks up and it scuttles the viewing experience. That’s the issue with broadband.

But what if there was a way to combine the best of both worlds? What if the world of broadband “converged” with the world of broadcast? If that happened on your phone, you could use the internet to do video calls and WhatsApp and switch to broadcast if you wanted to watch an IPL match lag free. It’s like having a satellite television on your phone. And the government is trying to make it happen.

They’re calling it Direct to Mobile (D2M).

And there are enormous benefits here outside of the obvious use cases that we listed earlier. For starters, the government could use the broadcast channel to relay important messages during times of distress. There’s also the fact that data is still expensive and if broadcasters can serve their content like they do on television, then it could help them reach even more people. This would also reduce the load on telecom network operators. Data-intensive videos (like an HD IPL match) could be streamed over the broadcast channel instead of the cellular network. For instance, if you want to watch a full IPL match on standard definition (not HD), you need around 3.5GB of data. And that means people have to spend at least ₹35 per match on a data pack. If there was an alternative, maybe it could be a win-win for everyone involved.

But before we get too ahead of ourselves, we also have to note that this is not going to happen overnight. Our phones don’t support D2M service. Our infrastructure isn’t ready yet. And the stakeholders involved in making this happen — content providers, telecom companies, and Prasar Bharati (the government entity that owns the terrestrial broadcast network) have not yet hashed out any key details.

So far, the folks at IIT Kanpur and Saankhya Labs have been working on this (alongside Prasar Bharati) to see if this could be feasible in the future (create a proof of concept). And while there is optimism that the D2M revolution will eventually come to life, we still have a long way to go.

For starters, let’s look at our phones. They can’t process broadcast signals because they were not built to support them in the first place. You need new technology, new standards and you have to get manufacturers to pack all of this in your mobile phone without inflating the price. And even if they somehow managed to do this in record time, you have to wonder — how do you make this work without a dish? Well, that’s kind of a challenge, which means you may have to rework (or reconfigure) the broadcasting infrastructure. How do you create a hybrid network - one that supports both broadcast and broadband? That’s what the folks at IIT Kanpur and Saankhya Labs are trying to figure out.

And finally, you also have to worry about regulations. If both broadband and broadcast converge, who will regulate all this? Will TRAI regulate everyone or will we still have the Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and a few others involved?

There are many unanswered questions. So yeah, while the idea of consuming content on your phone without a data plan sounds exciting enough, our understanding is that the final working solution may still be a few years away.

Until then...

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