Mobile TV - More Than Just Hype?
By Steve Wallage, Thu Nov 20 07:45:00 GMT 2003

Cynics are having a field day highlighting all the obstacles to mobile TV - but there is a real commitment to finally see the convergence of telecoms and media.

We're not talking about sending video clips over mobile networks - we 're taking about broadcasting TV to mobile handsets. It's already available in Korea, and will be launched in Japan by year end. And the roadmaps and competitive positions are being lined up to prepare for 2005 (or probably 2006) being the year of mobile TV.

Lessons from Korea

The Korean operators use a technology called Cell Broadcasting Service (CBS). Data is sent out to multiple users within the cell broadcasting range at the same time. A variety of channels are offered including news, entertainment, movie clips, music and the ubiquitous adult. Although Korean subscribers can sign up to bundled packages, viewing can be expensive and viewing times (due to battery limitations) are restricted to an absolute maximum of two hours.

The market will further evolve next year when SK Telecom offers Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB). The operator is launching a satellite in January and expects to offer 11 video channels by mid-2004.

Korean subscriber demand is strong. SK Telecom's JUNE service attracted one million users in the first nine months. It highlights the need for customizing mobile TV content - typical 'viewings' are 3-5 minutes and content has been adapted for mobile subscribers. The single most popular channel has been music videos.

Stirrings in Japan

Vodafone K.K. (formerly J-Phone) research has found that, "many customers welcome the idea of having a TV tuner integrated into their handset." The NEC V601N will be launched at the end of the year with an analog TV tuner. A key expected user base are commuters who want to watch sporting events or serial dramas. Vodafone K.K, clearly see this as a first step towards a digital TV offering.

The Japanese and Korean governments have signed an agreement on the availability of spectrum for satellite broadcasting to mobile handsets. There is also much work on mobile specifications within the Japanese Digital TV research group. Of course, the developments in Japan and Korea are based on their TV standards, and thus other countries need to work on developing their own mobile TV platforms.

The Nokia Plan

A number of handset vendors have shown their interest in mobile TV. For example, NEC demonstrated a 3G phone with digital TV chip in it at the Telecom 2003 show in Geneva.

Nokia, which has a division already producing digital set top boxes, has announced a clear path to mobile TV. Although much of the interest around the launch of the Nokia 7700 was its multimedia capabilities, it is also the starting point for its development of mobile TV.

At their Mobile Internet Conference in Nice, Nokia illustrated mobile TV with Nokia Streamer, IP Datacast network elements, and the Nokia 7700. It is already working with Finnish broadcaster, RTT Oy. In Berlin, it is working with Philips, Vodafone and Universal Studios Networks Deutschland GmBH to test broadband mobility. There will be other trials in Autumn 2004. Nokia will launch a 'mass market' version of the 7700 at the end of 2005.

Competing Standards

The jury is still out on the industry standard. Nokia has very much pinned its mast to DVB-H -Ari Beilinson, Nokia Business Development Director, states, "we strongly believe in DVB-H." Below are some of the key standards that are being explored.

Digital Video Broadcast - Handheld is being developed by the DVB Organization to combine traditional television broadcast standards with elements specific to handheld devices. Key aims of the DVB-H specification have been to minimize power consumption in the handset (and thus preserve battery life), and make allowance for the relatively poor antennas in handsets and the fact they tend to be used one meter off the ground. The DVB-H standard received a boost when, on September 10, it was agreed which of four proposals should be the basis for the standard. This should be completed in early 2004. One of the main challenges is how long it will take for DVB-H standardized terminals to become available.

Another option is to use the existing DVB-T (terrestrial). Supporters say it is already standardized while critics argue that it will always have problems with in-building coverage, power and processing. An EU project, Cismundus, is exploring complementary coverage and service provisioning models between broadcast and mobile telecommunications networks. It is looking at the convergence of DVB-T and UMTS. Cismundus again illustrates broadcasters and mobile vendors working together - members include France Telecom R&D, Philips Research Laboratories, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Telediffusion de France (TDF) and TV Cultura of Brazil.

The 3GPP is also working on a Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (MBMS). However, it is not envisaged that this will be ready until 2010. There is an argument that some of these solutions will be complementary - for example, DVB-H for broadcast services, and UMTS for on-demand transmission.

A further option is DAB. The network is already being built and vendors such as RadioScape are working on products. Critics argue that there are real spectrum issues and the handset would need an external antenna.

More Hurdles

Broadcasters have had their fingers burnt by the mobile industry. They were oversold WAP, and many are more interested in interactive services. They still see the mobile world as one of competing standards, operator strategies and technical nightmares.

They need to be convinced on both the 'opportunity and threat'. The potential opportunity is clear with the mobile user base. They need to be shown that this is an area in which they can make money. The lessons from Korea and assumptions from other players, is that consumer subscriptions can support the investment - and interactive services and advertising can provide the extra profit.

The threat is that they will be bypassed by both new mobile TV content, and specifically by subscriber generated TV. Some would argue that existing TV content is too powerful to have much to fear from these new sources. However, lessons from Japan and the rise of mob logs suggest that this is a trend that should not be ignored.

Other obstacles include the slow roll-out of digital TV, Digital Rights Management (DRM - something that could be discussed for days), actual consumer demand and willingness to pay, and technical and standardization issues such as antenna, in-building coverage, battery life and power consumption. The bottom line is that mobile TV must be able to offer a high quality service.

Déjà Vu

A lot of people will have a sense of déjà vu in reading about mobile TV. Its certainly true for me. Over ten years ago, I was working for a research consultancy whose strategy was to 'provide analysis on the impending convergence between telecoms and media'! Impending is still a fair description, and the notion that viewers texting in to reality TV programmes represents convergence, is hardly the brave new world we were thinking of ten years ago.

There are a lot of barriers to mobile TV, and this is another area in the development of the mobile world, where heads need to be banged together and personal ambition needs to be dropped for the greater good. In a nutshell, the broadcasters will not be interested unless it is clearly a viable proposition for them, and the mobile industry is working together on international standards and platforms.

Its certainly going to take a few years, and its also impossible to predict exactly which applications, business models and content will win out, but mobile TV will become a massive market.