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Mobile TV Effort’s Suspicious Timing, Implications

Thu, 04/15/2010 - 12:47pm
Maisie Ramsay

Mobile television has been around on a global basis for quite awhile, so why are U.S. broadcasters just now getting together to promote the technology?

There are a few reasons. First, the ATSC finally has standards in place for mobile television. The A/153 ATSC Mobile DTV standard was passed last October and device certification began in December. 

The standard is an extension of the existing DTV standard and was chosen because it allowed broadcasters to simply add mobile capability to their existing frequencies versus buying new equipment, as would have been necessary if they had chosen FLO TV’s existing proprietary technology.

Second, broadcasters don’t want to be left out of the mobile market. They want their content – and advertisers – getting through to as many people as possible, no matter the medium.

Third, the FCC is looking to take away some of their under-used spectrum for use in wireless broadband. 

If broadcast stations can prove that their unused spectrum will be put to good use for mobile television, it could help dissuade the FCC from asking them to fork over bandwidth under recommendations laid out in the agency’s broadband plan. 

The dozen broadcasters that banded together this week on a mobile television initiative argue their plan will “[give] consumers mobile access to video content while reducing congestion of the nation's wireless broadband infrastructure”- and show the FCC that they deserve to keep their spectrum.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has been critical of the FCC’s plan to ask broadcasters to put their spectrum up for auction, questioning whether the measures will be as voluntary as promised. The FCC says less than 25 percent of the 500 MHz recommended under the broadband plan will come from broadcast spectrum and that the plan will move forward on a strictly voluntary basis. 

The entry of industry heavyweights like NBC, FOX and ION into the U.S. mobile television market could have a ripple effect on a long-nascent industry. ABI Research analyst Fritz Jordan says the joint venture is “exactly” what the U.S. mobile television industry in the needs. “It’s one of the things that had to fall into place,” he says. 

  U.S. adoption of mobile television service has been slow. FLO TV’s proprietary broadcast technology has struggled to attract subscribers and technology running over cellular networks from the likes of MobiTV has been hampered by network speeds.

One of mobile television’s biggest success stories is in Asia, where analog-based mobile TV chips are embedded in devices to provide free mobile broadcasts. In-Stat analyst Frank Dickson says that the growth of the service can be attributed to the fact that it’s both free and widely available. 

“One of the key messages that we’re learning is that there is a reticence to pay for subscription mobile television service,” says Dickson. “The price has to come down.”

That’s exactly what will happen when local television stations begin broadcasting free mobile content to handsets. The eventual availability of free content could go a long way toward building low consumer interest in mobile television and may eventually translate into a willingness to pay for premium content of the sort offered by FLO TV. 

However, other challenges lay in store for the technology. The United States is very different from other markets where mobile television is popular because it lacks the large-scale mass transit infrastructure ideally suited for consuming the technology.

“There’s a cultural difference in the U.S. as to how people consume mobile television,” Dickson says. “In other parts of the world, they use it on mass transit. The use-case model in the U.S. is tough.”

The decision of broadcasters to leap into the mobile television space will undoubtedly buoy an industry that has struggled to stay afloat. What’s less clear is whether the mobile TV will be able to compete with the entertainment value of mobile broadband.

“Mobile TV is going to be competing with mobile broadband,” Dickson says. “Competition for entertainment has switched from being just video-centric to being both Internet- and video-centric.”

Content delivered over cellular networks is an especially potent competitor to mobile broadcast. It’s free, easily accessible from 3G and 4G networks and is already ubiquitously available. 

U.S. broadcasters may be moving in the right direction, but they are late to the game when it comes to mobile content.

“In the next five years, we will have at least five options to watch TV on devices: 3G, FLO TV, mobile DTV, satellite-assisted TV and [TV preloaded onto memory chips],” says Frost & Sullivan analyst Vikrant Gandhi. “It will be interesting to see how it works out for the end user.”

The Open Mobile Video Coalition says 45 television stations already have mobile broadcast on the market, with about one new station deploying the service every week.

The rapid growth of free, local mobile broadcast has obvious implications for FLO TV. However, the company appeared undaunted by the entry of additional players into the mobile television market. A spokeswoman described the situation as a “rising tide raises all ships” scenario. 

“We’re excited about the fact that mobile television is starting to pick up speed and that there’s interest being generated,” she said. “We view what’s going on with the coalition as a complementary service that’s being brought to market.”



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