Rethinking mobile TV

15 Oct 2006

The biggest news in the world of mobile and wireless right now has to be about piping television content down to handsets, or something the industry has already dubbed mobile TV. Obviously, the glamour and celebrity of the broadcasting industry should appeal to any mobile operator executive, but they just might be a little naîž’e when trying to replicate the business model of TV broadcasters in the mobile space.

First of all, TVs are different than mobile phones. They are plugged into a power outlet and can run continuously 24 hours a day. Mobile phones, on the other hand, are portable and battery life is an issue, especially when you are talking about models with a large color displays suitable for watching television content.

At the same time, television content is more or less created with continuous storylines and broadcasted out in a continuous flow. When you get a phone call while watching TV, it might be a disturbance, but you can still watch the show. When that happens on you mobile phone, you'll be missing the plot.

TV shows are also created to fill at least a half hour of air time. On the mobile, people will have to be willing to spend that much time paying attention to their mobile, or otherwise engage in less than engaging programming.

Crossing the street
When it comes down to it, the whole idea of mobile TV requires a lot more thought. Imagine allowing drivers to watch TV when they are on the road, or even pedestrians to watch TV when they are crossing the street. All these scenarios can result in accidents, which will undoubtedly draw the attention of lawmakers and government officials.

The root of the problem, of course, is the fact that television is a broadcast medium, hence streamed out in a continuous flow, so there's no way to stop the transmission and view it again later. And the fact that most mobile phone users are looking for brief moments of diversion on the bus, or the train, or waiting for a friend, means that conventional TV content just would not work.
What would work is content that lasts a few minutes long, footage that you can stop when you have to get off the bus, and resume once you are safely on the connecting train. Better yet, let's have content that is made by the same people that are subscribing to the service.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, the model is that of YouTube and the dozens or so of similar video sharing community sites on the Internet. At last count, YouTube serves up 100 million videos and gets 65,000 new uploads on a daily basis.

Certainly, creating and partnering with a content provider/host like YouTube makes more sense than becoming a TV channel for mobile operators. For starters, they won't have to pay for the content like broadcasters.

And by adopting a streaming format, they won't have to implement new infrastructure for broadcasting, but simply leverage their existing cellular networks as the distribution network. They don't need mobile TV to become media companies.

Get your TV license today
Perhaps the most interesting element of the mobile TV trend is that the whole concept of prime time will need to be redefined. Instead of the 7 pm to 9 pm slot, where people have just gotten home and relaxing in the living room, the prime time may shift to 5:30 pm to 6 pm, when people are getting on trains or into their car for their drive home and giving the channels their undivided attention.

Yet, there are already TVs inside buses and trains, so the whole notion of mobile TV deserves some serious thought. Then again, if mobile operators get their licenses, then there is no technical mechanism that prevents them from becoming real TV stations, broadcasting programs to real TV sets.

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