Mobile TV standards vye for acceptance

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With promises abounding of sports events, reality TV and celebrity broadcasts, there was no shortage of exuberance around delivering television to mobile phones at this year’s 3GSM Congress in Barcelona.

Almost every large mobile network operator and handset maker at the trade show was demonstrating or talking about their mobile TV plans, and content producers were equally excited.

Strategy Analytics, a technology consultancy, has predicted mobile TV will be worth $3.5bn by 2009, and mobile TV trials carried out late last year in the UK by BT and O2 showed encouraging interest in the service.

The mobile telecoms industry reasons that “everyone likes TV”, while the television industry is also showing strong interest in mobile phones as it faces fracturing audiences for its traditional services.

However it’s far from certain how mobile TV would work, says Jessica Sandin, a senior consultant at Fathom Partners, which provides strategic advice on convergent media and technology. There is still little known about how customers will use the service, while commercial issues have yet to be determined. “No-one knows what the successful formula will be,” she said.

DVB-H, a mobile version of a widely-used digital television standard used in O2’s trial, is widely expected to become the dominant mobile TV technology, at least in Europe and parts of Asia. New services announced this week by BT and Virgin Mobile in the UK will be based on DAB, the digital radio technology.

Meanwhile in South Korea - which is seen as a pioneer in broadband and mobile phone services - another technology, terrestrial DMB or TDMB, is supported by big manufacturers such as Samsung and LG.

Qualcomm, the US telecoms equipment company which developed CDMA mobile phone standards, says its proprietary FLO technology is superior.

Chief executive Paul Jacobs told the FT that he believed there were good opportunities for FLO around the world.

“Certainly people in the DVB-H camp are trying to make it seem that DVB goes with GSM or CDMA, and Flo is more CMDA2000 [which is little used in Europe], but I don’t buy that.”

However he said Qualcomm’s media service operation, MediaFLO, which manages content distribution for network operators such as Verizon, was unlikely to be replicated in Europe.

“We’d be willing to be partners in it, but I don’t necessarily see us as having the same position we have in the US where we actually own the whole thing.”

One outsider with a fighting chance is IPWireless, which has raised more than $200m including $14m from US mobile operator Sprint. Founded six years ago as a mobile broadband developer, IPWireless’ technology, tdTV, is more aligned to telecoms standards than DVB-H, which hails from the broadcast industry.

IPWireless’ broadband products are already used by some big mobile operators, such as T-mobile in the Czech Republic and Orange on Wednesday announced a trial of the technology on its 3G network.

Jon Beizer, chief financial officer, said IPWireless received a sudden flurry of interest in tdTV six months ago which has led to talks with several operators. Echoing the comments many companies made at 3GSM, he said the operators wanted to move incredibly quickly to deploy mobile TV, speeding up the trial and review process. It’s moving so fast that Mr Beizer said he expects to know within six months how widely tdTV will be used.

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