Service providers worldwide are gearing up to offer mobile TV, but they face a plethora of technology choices that are ultimately going to be determined more by market forces and spectrum availability than by technological merit
Mobile TV services may still be in the early adopter phase, but service providers around the world are scrambling to map plans to capitalize on the latest developing revenue opportunity.
At the vanguard of the mobile TV push is South Korea, where satellite DMB services - launched last May by SK Telecom-owned TU Media - have generated around half a million users watching about 60 minutes of programming a day, including a 74%-26% mix of video and audio programming, notes Vikrant Gandhi, an industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan.
S-DMB is one of two competitive offerings in Korea, where regulators helped push deployment as a means of supporting local manufacturers. The S-DMB service costs about $13 a month and provides 14 channels of video, 22 audio channels and three data channels, according to information supplied by Samsung, which offers end-user devices to support the offering. Subscribers also must purchase a special phone or hand-held device. Models offered by SK Telecom retail for as much as $800. According to an estimate from the government's Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI), S-DMB should have about 630,000 users in 2006.
However, that's well short of initial targets - TU Media had originally projected one million subscribers by the end of 2005. Meanwhile, S-DMB has begun to lose ground to a competitive offering based on terrestrial DMB (T-DMB) launched by another industry consortium including several telecom network operators in late 2005. Although this offering provides fewer channels (six video, 18 audio and one data channel, according to Samsung), it is offered at no charge to end-users and - more crucially, as it turned out - has support from free-to-air broadcasters that produce the country's most popular TV shows. Here, too, users must purchase a phone, which runs in the range of $600. But the steep price hasn't prevented users from purchasing devices to support the offering, which should have 1.45 million users in 2006, according to ETRI's estimate.
The T-DMB offering, which operates in the 200-MHz spectrum range, is less costly to deliver than the satellite service, and the goal is to make it advertiser-supported. But as Gandhi notes, 'Service providers are finding it difficult to sustain service and fear that it will be long before they turn profitable.' As a result, he anticipates that the South Korean government may allow service providers to charge a small fee for the service.
Mobile TV is also on trial in Europe, where industry consortiums of broadcasters, telecom network operators and others have been trialing both T-DMB and DVB-H, a rival standard favored heavily in the EU. According to data supplied by Nokia, average viewership in three key trials in the UK, Spain and France was about 20 minutes per day per participant. In each of these trials, the majority of participants said they were willing to pay in the range of 10 euros a month for the service.
The US, meanwhile, seems to be leaning toward a wholesale approach to mobile TV. Qualcomm, Modeo (a unit of cellular tower operator Crown Castle) and Aloha Partners are each planning to deploy competitive networks throughout the US that will broadcast popular television programming to mobile phones, with cellular network operators acting as resellers of the service.