Broadcasters to Make TV Mobile

[qi:032] In a nation with more than 225 million mobile subscribers, only 1.8 million of them watch broadcast television on their cell phones, according to September data from comScore. But a group of more than 800 broadcasters hopes to change all that — by making mobile TV shows both free and available at the same time they’re shown on oldteevee. To that end, in April 2007 those broadcasters formed the Open Mobile Video Coalition, aimed at establishing a standard for the delivery of mobile TV in the soon-to-be-available digital television spectrum.

On Tuesday, members of the OMVC got one step closer to making their dream a reality. The group, in conjunction with the Advanced Television Standards Committee, which was responsible for creating the standard that governs how your TV set receives an HD signal, approved a candidate standard for mobile digital television. In the bureaucratic world of standards-setting, this means the ATSC mobile DTV standard will be the accepted way to deliver mobile broadcast television going forward, although it’s subject to a few additional tweaks. In the real world, this means devices capable of delivering free, mobile TV will come as early 2010.

LG and Samsung, both of which backed the standard, plan to start making devices that will allow for mobile DTV trials next year. After the broadcasters complete the move to digital broadcasting in February 2009, TV stations will start widespread tests of mobile DTV. By early in 2010, according to Anne Schelle, the executive director of the OMVC, consumers should be able to buy such devices off the shelf.

As for the issue of whether or not consumers even want mobile television on tiny screens, Schelle is optimistic. She envisions interactive services and points out that the standard is flexible enough to offer a digital video recorder for time- and place-shifting, if so desired. That level of control would be compelling to broadcasters who see ISPs and even cell phone carriers as standing between them and their viewers. Schelle points out that broadcast television still controls the content people most want to watch, and by delivering that directly to mobile devices broadcasters can satisfy consumers — and by extension, have a better shot at controlling their own destinies.

“I do think there will be a day five years from now where you will be in a restaurant and everyone will pull out their mobile devices and be able to watch a live broadcast of whatever that seminal event of the day is,” Schelle said.

For end users in the U.S. (which is where this mobile broadcast standard will work), that means there will be two ways to watch over-the-air television on the go — via a device that receives the mobile DTV standard or through a carrier’s service built on top of MediaFLO, a Qualcomm technology. While a representative of LG Electronics, which makes phones for carriers that include Qualcomm MediaFLO chips, told me the two services aren’t mutually exclusive, they are competitive. They both want to offer over-the-air broadcast television on mobile devices ranging from phones to laptops to in-car entertainment systems.

But Qualcomm makes money licensing its MediaFLO network to carriers, which charge consumers $15 a month to access the service, while broadcasters plan to have some sort of free offering to anyone who has a device or dongle that can receive the signal. On the other hand, MediaFLO services are available today, while mobile DTV is still a developing standard.

Of course, almost two years after commercial availability of the service, mobile television delivered by MediaFLO is only watched by relatively few. That looks to be changing, however. Matt Milne, SVP of marketing and sales for MediaFLO USA, declined to give out subscriber numbers for the service but said in an email that viewership increased 70 percent in the three months ending September 2008. It’s still possible for MediaFLO to gain more viewers, or for the mobile DTV effort to fail because of a lack of devices or even consumer interest. One way or another, for those keen to tune in to TV on the go, this is a fight worth watching.

Image courtesy of OMVC

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