Mobile TV: Trials under way but the stakes are high

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With a history littered with glorious failures – such as WAP – and surprise successes – such as SMS – mobile phone carriers are keen to avoid any expensive mistakes.

This means the stakes are high for mobile TV, while its success is far from guaranteed.

Outside South Korea and Japan, true mobile TV broadcasts are mostly in trial mode or the initial stages of development.

The industry concern is understandable. While most of the trials have been successful, some surveys have indicated that most phone users are not keen on the idea of watching TV on their handsets.

Mobile TV has been a hit in South Korea, but it has previously adopted other internet and mobile services more enthusiastically than the rest of the world.

One of the biggest potential nightmares concerns which technology to adopt to deliver television services to mobile customers.

The list of mobile TV technologies is long and riddled with confusing abbreviations: there are almost as many as there are countries in which mobile TV is being rolled out.

So network operators, keen to find new revenue streams as the voice business matures, are facing tough decisions about when and how to upgrade their networks – with the cost possibly running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

TV-like services on mobile phones are already available in many countries, usually over a 3G network, but these are mostly limited to streamed video downloads rather than “broadcasts”, and the basic 3G network can only support a limited number of users in the same area at the same time.

Jim Brailean, co-founder of mobile streaming technology company Packetstream, says there needs to be a shakeout of the competing systems soon. “I don’t think it will hold back services, but people need to make decisions,” he says. Alan Harper, group strategy director at Vodafone, says his company will continue providing TV over 3G for some time, but will probably have to make a decision over which technology to adopt within a year to 18 months.

By then, he reckons, the standards landscape will be less cluttered and more will be known about how customers will use mobile TV. “It’s hard for the mobile industry to know which way to go yet, because it’s very early days,” he says.

The technologies fall into two categories: incremental upgrades, offering a cheaper but limited way to begin rolling out mobile TV, and the more comprehensive, expensive standards.

The cheaper and simpler options are based on existing 3G technology such MBMS and its variant, TDtv. IPWireless, the company behind TDtv, says that the cost of adding its technology to each handset is only about $10.

T-DMB, which runs over the digital radio spectrum, also falls into the lower-cost category. A Samsung-backed T-DMB project has been well received in South Korea since it launched there in December, and is broadcasting World Cup matches in several German cities free of charge to owners of new T-DMB phones from Samsung and LG.

However, most of these cheaper options will only support a few channels and T-DMB, with its roots in broadcasting technology, makes it difficult to charge for content.

On the more expensive and high-end side, the main rival standards are Qualcomm’s proprietary MediaFLO and DVB-H, which is backed by several big equipment heavyweights including Nokia, Texas Instruments, Intel and Crown Castle.

In football-mad Italy, DVB-H services went live just ahead of the World Cup. Telecom Italia, the largest mobile provider, and 3 Italia are already broadcasting to compliant handsets from Samsung and, in the case of 3, LG handsets. Vodafone in Italy plans to launch a service.

DVB-H is considered “future-proof” but requires big, expensive network upgrades and operates in a spectrum range that is treated in widely varying ways in different countries.

MediaFLO, meanwhile, is a proprietary approach from Qualcomm that has signed up Verizon Wireless in the US and is conducting trials in Japan and the UK with BSkyB.

There are problems inherent in both of these high-end standards. In the UK there is uncertainty about the status of DVB-H spectrum and a possibility that it may not be made available until next decade.

As for MediaFLO, the world’s leading handset maker, Nokia, has a history of legal battles with Qualcomm and is focusing on the non-proprietary DVB-H.

Qualcomm has responded with plans to develop a phone chip that will support several other standards alongside MediaFLO, and Philips Semiconductor, a supporter of DVB-H, is also keeping its options open on some standards such as a T-DMB-based system, which is used in the UK by BT and Virgin Mobile.

Then there is the question of the business model, which is closely tied to the technology question because the telecoms and broadcast industries tend to favour different systems.

Television evolved with public funding and advertising revenue, but on mobile TV the one is non-existent and the other in its infancy.

Dave McQueen, principal handset analyst at Informa, says that too many factors are unresolved for it to be possible to predict confidently how the standards landscape will evolve.

“The main problem is the cost of building the networks. Who pays? The network operator, the broadcast operator? And how much can you charge people?

“The business model is not clear,” he says.

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