CeBIT: Mobile TV Technology Is Ready, But Are Users?
By Carlo Longino, Fri Mar 11 16:00:00 GMT 2005

Operators and manufacturers are showing off plenty of Mobile TV products at CeBIT. With a number of operators running live services and manufacturers already showing working next-generation systems, the technology is here. But will users care enough to pay?

Several operators have made mobile TV and video a key part of their 3G content offering, generally offering users several live streaming channels as well as well as downloadable clips. Vodafone, for instance, offers German users live simulcasts of four TV networks and another 11 "looped" channels that feature repeating, periodically updated content. NTT DoCoMo offers 30 to 40 channels, and serves them up over a video telephony connection: when users select a channel, their handset initiates a video call to a special number, then displays the stream. Manufacturer Samsung had on display phones from its home market in South Korea that use receive satellite and terrestrial DMB television broadcasts.

Siemens as well as Samsung is showing off DVB-H concept devices and service demos, and this technology, though only in the trial stage, also looks promising. The demo devices deliver high quality video, as do the DMB services already in operation. The existing streaming services offer quality that's probably about what one would expect -- pretty good for relatively static images, but degrading some for fast-moving scenes like football matches.

Clearly, the technology is ready. Next-generation systems will add interactivity; Siemens' demo showed several basic interactive elements that use the mobile network to send data back in to broadcasters, initially things like voting or to make purchases. Even better, the DVB-H and DMB systems let users record content. While the handsets aren't ready to replace users' TiVos, it's hard to imagine future versions of the devices won't have software that serves similar functions.

So the technology is here to deliver TV to mobile devices, and is even progressing nicely. Operators don't look like they're having any shortage of content, with CNN live streams available from several of them, and other top brands offering content. But the question remains: is live TV something people want on their mobiles?

It's clear that not even the operators are certain. Vodafone's live streams are free for users on 3G tariffs (at least in Germany) through the end of the year, and while O2 Germany is only offering clips, not live TV, they're free for subscribers for the time being as well. Sounds like the rather usual "drug pusher model": offer users something for free until they're hooked, then start charging. But mobile TV may not offer the potency of illegal substances -- will users be hooked enough to pay? Vodafone and its rivals have several months to find out.

The DMB and DVB-H technologies are more compelling than streams over UMTS for the time being, since they offer users the ability to harness the broadcasts by recording them and playing them back on their own schedule. The key to mobile video won't be just broadcasting live TV on its own, it will be offering users personal media. While TV on a mobile remains a novel concept, there will come a point when users won't be satisfied with watching anything just because it's available -- they'll want more control over what they're presented with. That's some functionality they'll likely have no problem paying for.