Regulator quashes HKTV's mobile TV plans

12 Mar 2014

The strange saga of HKTV has taken another bizarre twist after Hong Kong’s telecoms regulator told the company it won’t be allowed to launch mobile TV services unless it limits coverage of the service to less than 5,000 households.

Background: HKTV – the television production company founded by Ricky Wong, who also started City Telecom and Hong Kong Broadband Network – was denied its application for a free-to-air TV license by the Hong Kong government October last year. The decision was controversial because the government had planned to issue three such licenses, and no satisfactory explanation was ever given as to why HKTV’s application was turned down.

HKTV pushed on with a mobile TV strategy, acquiring a mobile TV platform from China Mobile Hong Kong (which had been offering CMMB-based TV services), as well as the associated spectrum and mobile TV license (a.k.a. a Unified Class License). HKTV planned to launch mobile TV services in July this year using DTMB (Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcast), a Chinese-developed digital TV standard that, unlike CMMB, can broadcast HD video.

On Tuesday, however, HKTV said it received a lawyer’s letter representing the Communications Authority (OFCA) saying that under its license, it could only move ahead with its mobile TV plans if it limits coverage to less than “5,000 specified premises” [PDF]. Otherwise, it would be required under the Broadcast Ordinance to apply for either a pay-TV license or a domestic free-to-air TV license (the same license the government refused to give it five months ago).

Needless to say, Ricky Wong is furious. At a press conference, he reportedly accused the government of “moving the goal posts” and imposing Catch-22 style regulatory requirements in which HKTV’s mobile TV license requires it to cover at least 50% of the population yet reach less than 5,000 households.

Wong said HKTV had no choice but to halt production on new TV programs, though it will continue to pursue OTT content for the internet. HKTV will also consider legal action against the government.

However, it looks as though OFCA has the stronger case here.

According to a statement from the HK regulator, the problem is rooted in the fact that HKTV elected to adopt DTMB as its broadcast technology.

The reason that’s a problem is because DTMB is the same standard used by existing free-to-air broadcasters TVB and ATV for their digital TV services. While DTMB can also be used for mobile TV services, existing digital TV sets could also pick up HKTV’s signals.

Consequently, OFCA said, HKTV’s decision to switch from CMMB to DTMB caused it to run afoul of the Broadcast Ordinance, despite the fact that the ordinance doesn't cover mobile TV. Unless HKTV can demonstrate that less than 5,000 digital TV households will be able to tune in to its broadcasts, the service will exceed the terms of its mobile TV license.

As for the 50% coverage rule:

It should also be clarified that a broadcast-type mobile TV operator is obligated under its carrier licence to provide coverage for at least 50% of the "population" at moving locations, but not "households" nor "specified premises" under the BO [Broadcast Ordinance].

There’s more, but you can read HKTV’s complaints here [PDF], and OFCA’s response here, and decide for yourself.

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