The UK has become the world’s test-bed for video-to-go. More accurately, it has become the testing-ground for engineering trials of digital television broadcast to mobile devices, according to Mike Short, chairman of the international Mobile Data Association.

World Cup football in Germany this month, however, may force the technology out of the laboratory and into the commercial arena.

Two UK field trials have taken place in the past few months. The first, involving BT in collaboration with Virgin Mobile, showed that consumers were prepared to fork out up to £8 a month for a package of channels.

A second, run by the mobile operator O2 with the commercial station NTL Arqiva, found that people watched for up to three hours a week, averaging 23 minutes a session at home as well as on the move.

Which seems oddly counter-intuitive. Why should anyone choose to watch TV on a tiny screen using earphones when many homes these days boast thin, widescreen televisions in the parlour? It’s an intriguing question, but then the results of the two trials must seem doubly strange to those who regard mobile TV as of questionable value.

More UK trials are in prospect including a collaboration between BSkyB and the US semiconductor company Qualcomm in the first European trial of a technology called “MediaFLO”. Two weeks ago, a group of UK and South Korean companies including Arqiva, BT Movio, Radioscape, Factum, LG Electronics and Samsung announced a trial to take place in London to demonstrate the relative merits of different technological approaches.

Broadcasting television programmes to mobile devices is already a reality in South Korea where 600,000 receivers have been sold since December. The technology has also gone live in Germany, spurred into action by the proximity of the World Cup.

Frontier Silicon, a UK-based electronics group which is a world leader in receiver modules for digital audio and video says it has shipped more than 1m integrated circuits for incorporation into mass market mobile phone handsets for mobile TV services in South Korea, China and Germany.

Industry watchers agree that mobile TV is on the move. David McQueen, a senior analyst with the consultancy Informa Telecoms and Media, argues that the World Cup will kick-start mobile TV growth: “By the 2008 Olympics [in China] we will all be prepared to watch TV on our phones and by the 2010 World Cup, the infrastructure will be mature and one-in-13 mobile phone users worldwide will own a mobile TV handset,” he says.

It is significant that Radioscape, the company which has supplied the UK’s commercial radio stations with the technology to enable them to play out digital audio, has started to close deals with Chinese broadcasters.

This suggests that China will be well prepared for digital video broadcasting by the time it hosts the Olympics.

The research arm of the Canadian bank CIBC has little doubt that mobile TV is about to come into its own: “We believe the mobile food chain has reached critical mass,” it says, concluding that all the necessary pieces are now in place. “We expect commercial activity to move from Korea where it started in 2005 to the US in 2006 and Europe and other regions in 2007 and thereafter.”

All of which looks like good news for handset manufacturers and network operators. The need to acquire digital video-enabled handsets will help drive the replacement cycle while the apparent willingness of subscribers to pay for TV content should help sustain operators’ income and satisfy their search for ways to drive up average revenue per user.

Questions of broadcasting standards and spectrum allocation will need to be resolved, however.

There are at least four standards in play: DVB-H, a derivative of Europe’s terrestrial broadcasting technology and used in the 02/Arqiva trial; MediaFLO, a proprietary technology developed by Qualcomm of the US; T-DMB, a technology in use in South Korea; and DAB-IP, which transmits radio and television signals over the internet.

Inevitably, it looks as if each of these standards will be accepted in some markets. Just as with mobile phones, there seems little hope of achieving a world standard, despite the efforts of the International Telecommunication Union, whose regional conference closed last week in Geneva.

Analysts such as CIBC think that DVB-H is the best positioned standard worldwide, with companies such as Philips of the Netherlands, Texas Instruments and Motorola of the US and NEC of Japan, as well as Truespan Semiconductor of the US, Siano of Israel, Dipcom of France and Frontier Silicon of the UK, all working on DVB-H chips.

The World Cup, however, seems likely to form the best test-bed for what many think is the next killer application for mobile phones.

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