The News on 3G
By Joachim Bamrud, Wed Aug 14 00:00:00 GMT 2002

3G technologies promise to revolutionize news distribution for both journalists and viewers alike. But it may still be fiction than science at this point.

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, TV viewers worldwide were able to get live reports from inside Afghanistan at a time when foreign news crews were banned. The reports came courtesy of CNN correspondent Nic Robertson, who used a digital videophone (easier to sneak in the country than the big TV cameras).

Roberston's reports showed both the strength and weakness of such videophones. The images were fuzzy and the sound sometimes cut off. Yet, without the videophone, Robertson's report would not have been a reality.

Other reporters and photographers in Afghanistan (during and after the U.S. attacks) told how they used wireless technology extensively. With an almost non-existent basic telephony system, many reporters used wireless or satellite phones to transmit their written texts from their laptops.

The 3G phone will make their task even easier. Instead of carrying videophones and satellite phones (which can weigh considerably), reporters can simply (and inconspicuously) bring their mobile phones and when opportune, file their reports live.

Print media journalists and photographers can also use the built-in photo cameras in 3G phones to take and instantly send fresh photos from a news scene.

At the same time, the 3G phones represent a breakthrough for news-hungry consumers. Incidents like the September 11 attacks showed a potential demand for anywhere, anytime access to the latest news - and especially images of the hard-to-believe damage.

With 3G's promised transfer speeds of up to 2MB, high-quality video and sound can be seen and heard through a mobile phone. After a friend tells you about a major news he just heard, you get out your 3G phone and click your way to the CNN or BBC site to see their reports and footage. Maybe there's an option that lets you send the footage or report to another 3G phone or to save it for later viewing.

Sports fanatics are also a target audience. Several 3G licensees, including Hutchison, have bought the exclusive 3G rights to European football leagues. The recent World Cup, for example, would also have provided a good opportunity to see various games through mobile phones at the location that was most convenient to the viewer (key when the live broadcasts took place at rather inconvenient times for U.S. and European fans).

Yet, both news experts and others warn that the above scenarios are still some way from reality.

"I'm not convinced this will happen soon, but certainly in a few years this should be huge for news applications," says Steve Outing, a senior editor at the U.S.-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies and a columnist for Editor & Publisher Online.

Bruno Giussani, a Swiss-based expert on mobile technology and author of "Roam. Making sense of the Wireless Internet,” is even more skeptical: "I don't think that we will be watching the CNN newscast or the Brazil-Germany world cup game on a wireless device anytime soon, and not even anytime later."

The phone's small screen and poor image will generally not be able to compete with TV or even e-mail news summaries, he says. The only time Giussani sees an advantage in seeing a video newscast wirelessly on a pocket device is when users have no alternative - no TV within reach - and a major event happens - "one that you cannot ignore" - for example Sept 11, and the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Princess Diana.

"The big advantage of course is anytime/anywhere," adds Outing. "The phone will probably be the only device that can reach us with news (that we care about) no matter what we're doing."

But personalization will be key to the success of 3G news services, he argues. "What I want my phone to do is alert me to really big news events ("Jet crashes into WTC"), and lesser events that are important to ME (end-of-game results when the Colorado Rockies play)."

The news media themselves are only carefully preparing for 3G. NRK, the state-owned broadcast company in mobile-crazy Norway, in January 2001 ran a test of its signature evening news program through UMTS (the 3G technology used by GSM carriers) - the first such test in Scandinavia, according to Anne Halvorsen, a director of development at NRK. The broadcaster also made a complete demo of a UMTS web site with news, sports, entertainment, games and music videos.

Yet, even Halvorsen acknowledges one of the main 3G challenges for media companies today: "As of today it's not economically viable to concentrate development resources for UMTS," she says. "It's too early. Commercial opportunities are far way and both phones and networks are lacking."

Instead, NRK's main focus now is on Multimedia Messaging (MMS), where the broadcaster hopes to provide small video clips and color photos.

Such comments aren't news to Giussani, who ranks messaging among the top four 3G uses, followed by entertainment (sports, gambling, adult content) and information (alerts, breaking news).

BBC and CNN did not respond to requests for information for this article, but are expected to become leading 3G news providers. Both companies were early players in WAP - a medium more removed from their core TV broadcasts than 3G.

BBC is likely looking at sports as one of the key areas for 3G services. The broadcaster in May appointed Ben Gallop, an editor of BBC Sport's website, as its first ever Editor of Sport Interactive, with a mandate to look at how the sports programs could fit with 3G. Apart from its own programs, BBC will also be helping Hutchison 3G, the leading 3G licensee in the UK, with the production of its 3G content.

News over 3G will likely not be widely available until 2005/6 at the earliest, predicts Giussani. The long wait is due to a combination of reasons including technology delays (especially with handsets) and current financial challenges.

"Many [news media] have …limited investment flexibility right now, amidst consolidation, debt, and the general economic situation," he says. "Many have been badly burned by the WAP experience, and are not ready to just jump on the next bandwagon before being sure that there is something called ROI to be found there."

The final success will, of course, depend on how much consumers are willing to pay. Giussani believes the initial rates of GPRS provide a bad omen: "Downloading one song in MP3 format using a GPRS device with the prices applied today by European operators would cost something like 25 US dollars."

Yet, Outing believes 3G provides enough of a niche that media providers will be able to make money. "There definitely will be money to be made on 3G rich-media content," he says.

One way to reduce costs for consumers is advertising. But if not done properly, they may also be a major problem, warns Outing. "In exchange for getting a mobile content service that you really want, you [can] either pay a fee or agree to accept ads," he proposes. "Publishers and phone companies can't cram video ads down mobile phone users' throats, or 3G content will die a quick death."

But independent of whether 3G news becomes a WAP-style flop or SMS-type success, the world of news will never be the same.

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 18 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.