Waiting for mobile TV

13 Feb 2009

Broadcast video has always been one of the classic no-brainers of mobile content. Can't be home to watch the big game‾ Watch it on the go. The concept sells itself, right‾

Well, not exactly.

To be sure, there's a lot of appeal in the idea of live video on a portable device. Korea and Japan pioneered the idea five years ago with the launch of services like TU Media and 1Seg, respectively. By the start of 2006, a half dozen technical standards for broadcast-based digital mobile TV - the top contenders being DMB, DVB-H and MediaFLO - were primed for battle as vendors pitched the concept to cellcos keen on getting their ARPUs up via video services without overloading their 3.G network capacity. And by most expectations, 2008 was primed to be a banner year for mobile TV as trials led to more trials and commercial launches.

It wasn't.

Which isn't to say it was a complete disaster for mobile TV either. Trials are ongoing, initial takeup is 'encouraging', and various consumer surveys insist that mobile users do watch video. The trouble is, they're not just watching it on broadcast-based networks. They're watching sideloaded video on PSPs, or streaming YouTube videos on iPhones. And when they're watching live video on, say, CNN, Cartoon Network and the Discovery Channel, they're likely watching it streamed over a 3.5G network, rather than via technologies like DMB, DVB-H or MediaFLO.

Meanwhile, where broadcast-based mobile TV has gone commercial, results are mixed. Qualcomm's MediaFLO network in the US has paying subscribers, but coverage is limited, and only a handful of operators in other markets like Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia are trialing the technology. DVB-H is trialing in a number of markets in Asia, and while it's seen commercial launches in Europe, it's also been held back by complex rules and regulations, prompting the European Commission to devise new guidelines issued near the end of 2008 in an attempt to streamline the authorization process for rollouts. The move may be too late for Germany, where Mobile 3.0 handed its DVB-H spectrum back to the government last year, prompting analyst firm Rethink Research to declare in November that DVB-H was 'clearly, demonstrably, and totally shot as a technology', and that '[the] continued failure of Europeans to launch DVB-H will lead to greater and greater disillusion with the technology, and better and better alternatives.'

That's probably a little strong. But there's little doubt that mobile TV is due for a rethink (so to speak). Many of the factors holding up deployment are technology-neutral, such as regulatory issues and difficulties in securing content. But the real challenge, as always, is money. The evidence is mounting that while users may like the idea of mobile TV, most of them aren't willing to pay for it.

Hard sell

Sam Sheng, CTO and co-founder of chip-maker Telegent, says it stands to reason that mobile pay-TV is a hard sell.

'You're asking the consumer to make a fundamental behavior shift, and you're asking them to do that at premium prices,' he says. 'If you're going to do that, the user experience has to be worth what they're paying.'

Olivier Coste, chairman of Alcatel-Lucent Mobile Broadcast, cites three factors that have hindered mobile pay-TV services to date: coverage, device range and channel selection.

'In Korea, for example, they are not just selling handsets - you have portable media devices, GPS devices and cars with mobile TV capability,' he says. 'Also, it's important to have a wide selection of channels, because if you only have five to ten channels, that's not really enough to get people to pay.'

That's not to say that people aren't paying for mobile TV now, he adds, pointing to 3 Italia's H3G service.

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