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Killer app!
Broadcast TV In the Palm of Your Hand
and Local Startup Penthera is Leading the Charge



In a world driven by markets, success frequently eludes new products for no other reason than they must await the emergence of complementary technologies to become fully commerciable. On one hand, patiently awaiting the arrival of a missing piece of technology may become an exercise in futility, as patents expire, funds burn up or the competition usurps the technology with a giant leap. On the other hand, an entrepreneur may see a gap in a technology as an opportunity to realize its full commercial value by supplying the missing link. The story of a fast-moving Pittsburgh software company named Penthera is just such a case.


Penthera makes essential software for what promises to become the next wave of communication technology - live mobile TV broadcasts for cell phones, PDAs, laptops and vehicle receivers. The technology, called Digital Video Broadcast - Handheld (DVB-H) is facilitated, in part, by the opening of broadcast spectrum resultant of an FCC regulation requiring full-power broadcast stations to migrate from analog to digital broadcasting by 2009.


That migration, which is under way now, is also responsible for the advent of several other digital broadcast standards and applications, including High Definition Television (HDTV). While there are several specifications for mobile digital video, DVB-H is one of the leaders. Two pieces of Penthera’s software serve to enable the technology. On the client, or receiver side, Penthera ViewerTM, enables user-friendly tuning and reception for portable devices. On the server side, Penthera Broadcast Center facilitates transmission management of broadcast signals. The technology is expected to change television-viewing habits by transparently integrating a wide array of existing communications systems and protocols to deliver highly personalized, interactive programming to portable handheld devices. DVB-H trials have been underway since 2005 in locations around the globe, including Pittsburgh, where full-service is expected by this fall.


TUNING IN AN IDEA

The story begins a little over a year ago, when veteran high-tech entrepreneurs, Drs. Sam Leinhardt and Adam Berger, began to explore commercial opportunities in the next generation of handheld video devices. In the remarkably short time between April and September 2005, the pair identified a market opportunity, defined their next product, enlisted investors, organized the company, wrote a new software specification, and demonstrated a prototype to executives at Intel Corporation.


As Dr. Leinhardt tells it, when he and Dr. Berger began talking, all the necessary hardware and software components were in place for consumers to watch television while moving about their everyday lives, except for one. That missing component was the ability to easily change channels. “It was something that would seem to be an obvious requirement, but nobody had gotten around to doing it yet,” Leinhardt said. Before Penthera’s software, mobile broadcast systems, then in the demonstration stage, required viewers to type in a new IP address for each channel; sort of like trying to go to a new Web site on your computer without knowing the Web address. A system so cumbersome surely would have limited the technology’s full commercial potential. Penthera’s solution to that problem was an Electronic Service Guide (ESG), a graphical user interface that looks and works very much like a cable or satellite TV screen menu. The ESG is controlled with a touch-screen stylus, mouse or keypad, depending on the receiving device. As a practical matter, Penthera’s Electronic Service Guide brings a level of user-friendliness to handheld mobile television not unlike that brought to desktop computing by Microsoft OfficeTM 15, or so, years ago.


DVB-H exploits the fact that, unlike its wireless cousins, cellular and Wi-Fi networks, the number of concurrent users has zero effect on performance. For instance, when you try to make a cell phone call during halftime at a sporting event, chances are you won’t get through immediately because a few thousand other fans will be using the cellular network. Wi-Fi networks have similar bandwidth limitations. With broadcast signals, it doesn’t matter how many people are watching at the same time. Besides the freedom from network-use limitations inherent to cellular TV, DVB-H offers 25-frame per second (fps) image quality, approaching the 30fps you see on a full-size TV. Studies have shown that the 10-or-so frames per second frame rate available with other technologies is sufficiently visually disturbing to discourage viewing for longer than a few minutes.  DVB-H screen size is 320 X 240 pixels, which is exactly one-quarter the size of a regular TV; big enough to see at arm’s length; small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.


On the other side of the coin, digital mobile broadcast devices are limited to receiving (i.e., not sending) broadcast television and radio signals. However, the incorporation of cellular, Wi-Fi and short messaging services (SMS) capabilities into DVB-H devices enables simultaneous signal transmission over those systems. The integration of these “back-channels,” as they are called in industry jargon, allows viewers to interact with the TV programs they’re watching in real time.


HOW doeS IT WORK?


Naturally, one of the keys to Penthera’s consumer-friendliness is that the inner workings of these various systems are completely transparent to users. So you’ll be able to watch your favorite TV reality show on your living room TV and vote for your favorite performer over the cellular or SMS network by clicking a screen icon on your handheld device while watching the program on your way to the fridge or microwave, without picking up the phone and without missing a single lyric. Or, you could watch a baseball game and buy a ticket to next Tuesday’s double-header by touching a sequence of screen icons. You’ll still have to go to the kitchen for hot dogs and beer, but you won’t have to wait for the inning to end.


However, as with many technologies, there’s an amazingly large and complex set of systems behind the handy, little screen. DVB-H signals arrive at handheld devices after several rounds of digital hopscotch along land-based stations, sky-based satellites and public airwaves, each of which is a complex system unto itself. To begin, a production or content distribution network, like Disney or ESPN, “feeds” a digital program to a stationary-orbit communication satellite that, in turn, re-transmits the signal stream to a receiving dish, at a DVB-H broadcaster’s Network Operation Center (NOC), back on Earth. At the NOC, the streamed signal is sliced, diced, decoded, recoded and repackaged, with both broadcast instructions and content code; sort of like a million-piece jigsaw puzzle with parts of the actual picture on the front, and a numeric code for each piece’s position in the puzzle on the back. The recoded signal is then re-fed to a satellite and beamed back to multiple local mobile broadcast transmission sites on Earth, where the DVB-H signals are sent to a broadcast antenna, similar to those on cell phone towers, and are sent out over the public airwaves, just like old-fashioned TV, only the signal is high-efficiency digital, not spectrum-wasting analog.


When received at the handset, software inside the device spreads out the signal, something like the way you might dump our imaginary million-piece box of puzzle pieces onto the dining room table. Then, just as you would flip all the pieces over to read the numbered code on the back, (unless you really love to do hard jigsaw puzzles), Penthera’s software reads the broadcast instruction code, looks for information on the channel you want to watch and switches the antenna on when the instruction code tells it that the chosen channel is delivering a signal, and off when it’s not. Although switching happens many times a second, data for the active channel arrives only about 20 percent of the time, resulting in the receiver antenna being off about 80 percent of the time. With a scratch of the head and the back of an envelope it’s easy to figure out that the net effect of being in the off-state while not receiving a signal results in something like a five-fold increase in battery life compared with continuous operation. Today’s DVB-H devices run about three and a half hours on a charge. Plenty for watching, surfing and calling to your heart’s content.


In addition to solving the power consumption problems associated with receiving a continuous signal stream, DVB-H is designed to overcome two other problems inherent to broadcasting television signals to a moving receiver. Those problems are: 1) interference and; 2) Doppler shifting. Interference occurs when broadcast waves bounce off structures like buildings and work themselves into a tizzy before they get where they’re going, resulting in image ghosting, static and noise. Doppler interference occurs when the speed of a moving vehicle distorts a broadcast signal because the vehicle is effectively moving toward or away from the signal source (the transmission antenna). While Doppler interference is not a big deal for car radios, it can result in a degraded image for TVs going seventy miles per hour. In response to those issues, DVB-H minimizes both forms of interference.


No Luck Behind the Magic

At first glance Penthera’s story appears to be blessed with serendipitously good fortune. Upon closer investigation however, it becomes apparent that the company’s first moving, fast-forward, market-savvy success has nothing to do with luck. CEO, Sam Leinhardt, has three previous successful high-tech startups under his belt. Penthera’s co-founder, Adam Berger was a founding partner in Eizel Technologies, a developer of corporate mobile email solutions. Eizel was the tech-child of Berger and three graduate student colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, in 2000. Although the original Eizel group was technically adroit, it didn’t take long for its members to conclude that they needed some business-savvy “adult supervision,” as Berger puts it. That supervision came in the form of Brooklyn native, Professor Leinhardt who, after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, spent a year teaching at Harvard before joining the CMU faculty, where, in the early 1980s, he founded Formtek, an engineering software development company which he sold to Lockheed; and later, Storm, a Web file server acceleration company, which he sold to Red Leaf. Leinhardt, an Eizel investment angel, quickly became the company’s President and CEO. In 2003 Eizel was sold to Nokia for $21 million.


However, the company’s sale did not result in a parting of ways for the people who had made it successful. To the contrary, Penthera’s continuing amicable relationship with Nokia proved to be key to its development. “People from Eizel and Nokia formed the backbone of Penthera,” Chief Technology Officer, Adam Berger said. “So we definitely have a Nokia pedigree. We knew how to work together and we all had backgrounds in mobile phone technology, particularly in writing software for mobile phones.” But Nokia’s influence on Penthera’s development did not stop with talent recruitment.


For instance, a Nokia employee introduced Penthera to one of the world’s leading DVB-H broadcasters, Modeo, a division of Crown Castle International Corp. Coincidentally, and perhaps fortuitously for Pittsburgh, Modeo’s network operation center (NOC) is located in Southpointe, just a few miles from Penthera and several other key players in the DVB-H sector. By the time the two companies met, Modeo had already settled on the DVB-H standard. It fell to Penthera to make it user-friendly. The result of Penthera’s work is the U.S. DVB-H Over the Air Interface Specification, a published specification for use by any-and-all DVB-H industry players for the development of hardware and software products that are compatible with Modeo’s nationwide network.


“Modeo needed to develop a specification for the over the air interface,” Leinhardt said. “They wanted to create a public specification that would allow third parties to make their products compliant with Modeo’s specification. They were familiar with Carnegie Mellon and had respect for the engineering talent that came out of it. We won the competition to write and maintain the spec. As a consequence, we wound up being the guys who know the client spec inside and out.”


After writing the client, or handset specification, Penthera won the contract for the “head-end,” or NOC, specification – the part that feeds the program guide into the broadcast data stream. By increments, Penthera built that specification into a separate proprietary software product called Penthera Broadcast Center. In late May, Modeo officially purchased Penthera Broadcast Center to use in its Pittsburgh NOC. Today, the Penthera has eight patent filings related to both their products.


Owning the intellectual property that enables both the transmission and reception ends of DVB-H puts Penthera in a very enviable market position. “The first mover has an enormous advantage,” Leinhardt said. “It is very hard to dislodge a system like this once it is in a broadcast environment. That is not to say we are not dislodgeable, but we are in a remarkably good position to create and maintain a dominant presence as this network is built out and people start picking up the service.”


In addition to Pittsburgh’s Penthera and Southpointe’s Modeo, Allegheny County is home to several other DVB-H players including, leading mobile broadcast hardware manufacturer and technology integrator, Lawrence, PA’s Axcera, and Azcar, a Canadian company with facilities in Canonsburg, that provides engineering, detailed design, project management and technical documentation of technologically complex projects, such as DVB-H broadcast and network operating facilities.


A TECHNOLOGY IN SEARCH OF A REVENUE MODEL

Perhaps indicative of DVB-H’s newness is the fact that no broadly accepted revenue model has yet emerged. Although a subscription model is most obvious, the integrated use of multiple value-added services as varied as periodic subscription, pay-per-view, targeted advertising, SMS voting, location-specific advertising, cell phone response and web-store-fronts makes the issues of digital rights management and revenue collection complex, while at the same time creating a myriad of market-making possibilities. In order to exploit the full benefits of the technology, surely teamwork between commercial enterprises will prevail.


All in all, figuring out how to collect the money is sure to be a happy problem for the DVB-H industry to solve. For Penthera’s part, Sam Leinhardt said, “The next step is to get to the consumer market and do the advertising and manage the consumer transactions, which is really what we want to do. We had to do early product development work in order to create a consumer market. Now, individuals will have a personal access device receiving rich content and allowing for targeted advertisements. That could be much more effective than the advertising that takes place on a large screen TV in a living room. Not only is it targeted, but eventually it will appear to the individual user to be something they actually want to see. If I’m interested in soccer, I want to know when the next World Cup is playing. If I’m interested in golf, I want to know when Tiger Woods is playing next. It becomes more information-based, with an action capability. If it is a show I want to see, I can schedule a pay-for-view showing in advance and pay for it in advance. That creates a terrific potential for us.”


Commenting on the anticipated impact of DVB-H, Adam Berger said, “Within several years, video broadcast enabled phones and mobile devices will be practically ubiquitous. The way today, you can’t buy a cell phone without a camera on it, in a couple of years, you won’t be able to buy a phone that doesn’t support broadcast TV.”

And if things stay on schedule, Pittsburgh will be one of the first places to buy one.


This article first appeared as a TEQ cover story. You can read it on the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s website.

©Copyright 2005 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications


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©2009 Science Communications
thomas@science-communications.com