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The Reality of Mobile TV

Sun, 03/02/2008 - 12:03pm
Brad Smith

There are still a lot of questions about the future of mobile TV and video,
with little solid evidence that it will reach a mass consumer market.

Most of the excitement surrounding mobile TV from a year ago has dissipated, although those in the nascent industry still think consumers in large numbers want to watch shows on their phones. The questions are when and what?

Mobile TV is very much a work in progress, with a lot of experimenting going on about what delivery mechanisms to use and what kinds of programs grab consumers’ attention. There are myriad standards and proprietary technologies available for mobile broadcast TV especially.

Videos Mobile Phone
Source: ABI Research

Then there’s mobile TV sent over a cellular network, the so-called unicast or “on-band” model that also includes streaming video content. Most 3G carriers offer some kind of streaming video, including phone-to-phone video or content from video sharing services like YouTube.

You’ll find a great variety of opinion among analysts about consumer interest in mobile TV and video. Mike Wolf, a research director with ABI Research, is predicting 462 million people globally will be watching mobile TV and video by 2012, with nearly half of those consumers in the Asia-Pacific countries.

Wolf didn’t differentiate between broadcast or unicast, but said in an e-mail that he thinks the biggest revenue opportunity for carriers is with one of the broadcast strategies. But he said ad-supported unicast TV and video in an off-deck context will provide “significant revenue” for carriers.

THE QUESTION OF ADVERTISING
An ABI survey of mobile phone subscribers in the United States found 14% had watched TV or video on their handsets, Wolf says. Unicast video from the Internet, such as YouTube, was more popular than a carrier offering. Of those who viewed video, 35% had watched YouTube, 31% saw video from their carrier’s video service and 28% had loaded the video on their phone from a computer.

Commercial Mobile Phone
Source: ABI Research

Subscribers also were asked about ad-supported mobile TV and video. Nearly one-third said they would never want an advertisement, but when asked if an ad would make the service cheaper 30% said they would accept them.

“The basic take-away from the ad questions is they are against it in principle, but when you mention some benefit such as subsidized service, they are much more receptive,” Wolf says.

David Chamberlain, an analyst with In-Stat, says his mobile user surveys show that “consumers love mobile video unless they have to pay for it.” He says a survey last summer indicated that 70% of mobile subscribers who would like to see video or TV on their phones would refuse to pay for it.

Chamberlain says consumers are much more willing to watch mobile broadcast TV that is essentially the kind of programming they get from their regular TV now. That’s what a new association of traditional local TV broadcasters wants to do. The association, called the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), plans consumer trials this year using two new technologies called Mobile-Pedestrian-Handheld (MPH) and Samsung’s A-VSB. The OMVC hopes to commercialize the service, essentially broadcasting existing content to handhelds, sometime next year.

PROLIFERATION OF TECHNOLOGIES
MediaFLO and DVB-H are the two mobile broadcast standards in the limelight, but there is a proliferation of other technologies. Europe’s Orange and T-Mobile plan to use a technology called TDtv developed by NextWave Wireless, which is capable of using spare capacity in their UMTS networks. That would compete against DVB-H, which has been endorsed by the European Union as a European standard.

To make matters even more confusing, Clearwire and ICO Global Communications plan a trial in the United States this year using satellites to broadcast TV to mobile devices using a technology called DVB-SH (digital video broadcasting from satellite to handhelds). The technology is viewed as a complement to any DVB-H (digital video broadcasting to handhelds) network.

Of course, the Chinese have their own mobile TV standard they plan to launch for the 2008 Summer Olympics. That’s China Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting (CMMB), which uses both satellite and terrestrial infrastructure.

In the United States, the carrier with the most experience with broadcast mobile TV is Verizon Wireless, which launched its V Cast Mobile TV service a year ago. It has eight channels – ESPN Mobile, CBS Mobile, Fox Mobile, Comedy Central, MTV, NBC News2Go, NBC2Go and Nickelodeon – offered via Qualcomm’s MediaFLO network. The service is up in more than 50 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Pricing ranges from $13 to $25 per month.

Like other 3G carriers, Verizon Wireless also offers unicast TV over its own network, using the GoTV Networks programming. That service, under the general V Cast banner, is available on any Verizon Wireless video-capable handset. The carrier offers a variety of programs on the service, which is part of the $15 monthly V Cast subscription.

Ryan Hughes, multimedia vice president for Verizon Wireless, says broadcast TV still is in its infancy and the operator hasn’t done a lot of promotion of the service because it isn’t truly national yet. He says sports content is one of the most popular services, which is one of the reasons Verizon Wireless offered 24 full-length college bowl games in December and January. The carrier also has carried the U.S. Open golf tournament, the Big XII college football games, English Premier League soccer, MLS soccer, the X Games, NASCAR racing and Wimbledon tennis.

Seeking the Video Experience

Although mobile video is in its early stages, one gauge of the excitement surrounding mobile video is the number of new companies and technologies with services to get videos onto handsets.

Some have an advertising-based service to play Web content on phones, whether on- or off-portal. Others are trying to jump-start mobile video with consumer-oriented hardware.

CMYK2
PacketVideo’s mobile TV receiver
CMYK2 can turn a Wi-Fi phone
or personal media player
into a mobile TV.

California’s Transpera is one of those newcomers, with technology and a service designed to quickly take existing video content and make it possible to watch on a handset. Transpera recently mobilized CBS News’ video content, as well as for the online entertainment site Break.com. Transpera launched just last July, with financing from First Round Capital, IDG Ventures and Intel Capital.

Transpera also works with the content owners to provide relevant advertising for their content, according to founder Frank Barbieri. The company’s technology works with WAP browsers or rich clients, including BREW or Java.

“We can take any online feed and make sure it works on the broadest set of handsets in North America,” Barbieri says. Because the content goes through Transpera’s servers, the company also is able to insert advertising and can develop demographic information about when and what people are watching.

Barbieri thinks the best video content for mobile phones is “perishable,” such as news or sports. “Something that people want to get their hands on immediately but don’t care about the next day,” he says.

Vantrix, with headquarters in Montreal, Canada, has built up a customer list that includes ABC News, Orange, T-Mobile and The Weather Channel for its technology. Daniel Torras, marketing vice president, says virtually any cell phone capable of playing video can receive Vantrix-enabled video. That’s about 100 million subscribers in the United States.

Torras says mobile video is a natural tie-in for people who already watch video on their PCs. “Why should it be any different on the cell phone,” he asks. He says Vantrix’s technology assures a quality experience with dynamic bit rate adaptation.

On the software side, Aricent has developed codecs it sells to handset makers to optimize multimedia content, as well as network management tools and even the user interface on handsets. Aricent formerly was Flextronics Software Systems.

Deepak Mehrotra, vice president of Aricent’s mobile terminals unit, says the company has developed technology for silicon manufacturers to use to provide high-definition quality video on handsets.

Companies like PacketVideo and NextWave Wireless also are trying to seed the mobile video market with some new hardware platforms.

PacketVideo has been showing a matchbox-sized mobile broadcast receiver that can turn a Wi-Fi-phone or personal media player into a mobile TV. The receiver decodes a digital TV signal, sends it via Wi-Fi to the phone, which can play the video.

Joel Epselien, strategy vice president, says the receiver will be available for DVB-H, MediaFLO and TDtv, as well as WiMAX. It will work with the Apple iPhone, the Nokia N-series and HTC smartphones.

Epselien says one of the challenges for any of the mobile TV broadcast services is the lack of handset choices, but that the PacketVideo receiver will broaden those choices quickly. The receivers, which will be built first for DVB-H networks in Europe, will go into mass production by the end of the year.

PacketVideo’s parent, NextWave, recently came out with a handset development pack for the mobile broadcast technology TDtv. Orange and T-Mobile U.K. both announced plans to jointly pilot NextWave’s UMTS-based TDtv solution in the second half of the year. TDtv allows operators to use existing UMTS spectrum instead of buying new spectrum for another technology like DVB-H.

NextWave’s handset development pack will make it possible for handset OEMs to add TDtv to their UMTS handsets, says Jon Hambidge, chief marketing officer for NextWave.

“We wanted to accelerate the market,” he says. “It takes 12 to 18 months to bring handset technology to market but with an end-to-end solution like this, we can shorten the time to 3 to 4 months.”

PROGRAMMING CHOICES
Subscribers also like to watch breaking news events on their phones, such as last fall’s brush and forest fires in Southern California. Audiences for V Cast Mobile TV skew toward the young (18 to 34) but are only 55% male.

The unicast TV market is more about “snacking” on short video content, Hughes says. That includes YouTube videos as well as segments of a long-form show, such as watching David Letterman’s Top 10 but not the rest of the show. Consumers want short pieces of content on demand, content that is separate from and not complementary to traditional broadcast TV.

Verizon Wireless only has four handsets for its broadcast TV service, which Hughes says is the right number until V Cast Mobile TV is truly national. As penetration increases, there will be more handset choices, he says.

Reaction
Source: ABI Research

Hughes won’t give any numbers on mobile TV subscribers, only saying that Verizon Wireless is “quite pleased with its success” in the 11 months since it rolled out.

MediaFLO appears to have won the technology wars in the United States, at least in the early going, and Qualcomm’s MediaFLO Technologies (MFT) unit continues to push the technology in other parts of the world. Omar Javaid, vice president of business development for MFT, says the biggest challenge for MediaFLO and mobile broadcast TV generally is the availability of spectrum in any country.

“That (spectrum challenges) is not unique to MediaFLO,” Javaid says. “What the entire market has underestimated is how difficult it is to get spectrum and how long it will take to get it.”

Qualcomm acquired spectrum in the 700 MHz band for its MediaFLO USA networks, and continued to try to acquire it. Some of that has been used by local TV stations for analog signals and those stations have until February 2009 to switch to digital and clear the spectrum. A similar transition from analog to digital is going on around the world, with different time periods in different markets. Some may not be cleared until 2020.

Javaid doesn’t want to speculate on when and where more spectrum will be available for mobile TV because it is such a complex process subject to regulatory agencies, politics and market forces. “There just is a great deal of flux,” he says. “But one of the benefits is that Qualcomm can take on these long-term projects. We’re as committed to MediaFLO in the United States as we are elsewhere.”

With mobile TV and video in such a state of flux, the race may go to those with a long-term commitment and the patience to go with it.

High-Def Video on Your Phone?

At the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, Texas Instruments announced a new processor capable of turning on mobile phone into a high-definition camcorder. But why do you want HD video on a phone’s small screen?

DLP technology
DLP technology from Texas Instruments.

The answer is that TI sees mobile devices becoming central figures in anyone’s multimedia network, capable of recording high-definition video and then sending it to Websites or friends, displaying it on a big-screen TV, or even projecting videos for a home or enterprise theater experience.

At the center of this vision is TI’s OMAP3440 applications processor, which supports HD video recording on smartphones and mobile Internet devices (MIDs). TI expects to start sampling the chip in the second quarter of this year.

Another piece is the chipmaker’s extension of its DLP technology to mobile devices. TI has developed a DLP Pico chipset that includes a chip and a processor for handheld and mobile projection devices. TI demonstrated a prototype projector using the technology at the MWC.

Brian Carlson, technology manager in TI’s cellular systems unit, says high-definition capabilities should start showing up in mobile devices by the end of the year or early 2009. He says consumers who are used to having high-quality video at home are going to want to use it while they are mobile.
“Video is the next big wave for mobile,” he says. “Imaging was first, then audio and now video is catching hold.”

Greg Delagi, TI senior vice president, told a press conference at the MWC that the mobile phone is becoming more and more useful every day. “As an industry,” Delagi said, “we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of how important and helpful mobile devices will become to each and every one of us.”

 

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