As a mobile TV standard, China Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting (CMMB) has all the makings of a commercial success. For last year’s Olympics, China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) deployed a few CMMB-enabled TD-SCDMA handsets in time for the games. The positive user feedback that followed encouraged the release of three 3G operator licenses in early 2009, which should have given CMMB a shot in the arm.

Unfortunately, since China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) hadn’t approved any CMMB handsets six months before that, there currently aren’t enough handsets to meet demand. This has forced curious consumers to try CMMB services through imitation handsets, which perform poorly, leaving many of them to swear off ever using CMMB again.

But things are quickly turning around for the technology. The MIIT started licensing more CMMB handsets at the end of last year, with Yulong and Hisense among the first companies to secure network access permits for their TD-SCDMA/CMMB handsets. More branded manufacturers are expected to join the fray soon.

The great thing about the combo TD-SCDMA/CMMB trend is that, apart from spreading awareness about CMMB, it gives the TD-SCDMA industry a much-needed boost. However, combination TD-SCDMA/CMMB handsets will not be enough to meet market demand for CMMB services. SARFT has announced commercial operation of CMMB mobile TV in more than 100 cities in the second half of 2009.

Right now, five main obstacles are holding back CMMB’s success. The lack of approved handsets on the market is the biggest one. Combo 2G+CMMB and 2.5G+CMMB handsets are expected to fill the need where TD-SCDMA/CMMB can’t, but there’s no telling when manufacturers can submit such prototypes to MIIT for approval. Protective policies surrounding TD-SCDMA have also delayed licenses for combo 3G handsets based on cdma2000 and WCDMA.

Aesthetics is the second problem that CMMB needs to overcome. Current handsets feature telescopic antennas. To consumers, this can be an eyesore, even on the most stylish models. Experts claim that these types of antennas are a necessity for now, given the low density of CMMB transmission networks. But as more networks are deployed, future CMMB handsets can switch to the internal antennas that most of today’s mobile phones have.

Poor indoor reception is the third issue that has to be resolved quickly. CMMB is fighting an uphill battle with European standards such as DAB and DVB-T. Beijing DAB now has 16 audio programs and six video programs in operation, and most users already know how great the service is. Last year, DAB proved itself by working flawlessly during the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics. Until CMMB fixes its problems with signal quality, it will keep losing market share to DAB.

The fourth challenge is the development of multistandard terminals. China’s current mobile TV standard is DMB-T/H, but it would be highly practical to promote both of these standards. In response, CMMB terminal developers would have to add support for software radio architecture. Once cognitive radio functions are incorporated into terminal designs, users would be able to receive mobile TV programs even when using CMMB handsets overseas. However, multistandard terminals are still too costly to be commercially viable.

And last but not least, if it’s going to take off commercially, CMMB needs to expand its library with quality content. After all, no one would shell out good money for a top-of-the-line CMMB handset if there’s nothing worth watching on it.