Broadcasters Keep Pushing the Mobile TV Boulder Uphill

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The effort by broadcasters to bring free mobile television (kind of like a mobile phone version of a Sony WatchMan) continues with a group of 12 broadcasters today announcing plans to upgrade TV stations in 20 markets so they can deliver live video to portable devices. The 12 are part of an effort dubbed the Mobile Content Venture (a name about as creative as me naming my brown teddy bear Brown Bear when I was two), which seeks to deliver free, broadcast television content to specially equipped mobile devices. All of this will be done using spectrum owned by the broadcast companies for delivering over the air TV and radios tuned to a standard pushed by the Open Mobile Video Coalition.

I’ve previously explained the effort, which was begun in 2007. However, we were skeptical of the success of the broadcasters’ hopes for mobile TV, with Chris Albrecht writing a year ago:

“But for the time being, those [broadcasters’] signals will be falling on deaf devices. While LG showed off prototype phones at CES, and other consumer electronics companies such as Samsung have signed on to the project, there are no firm launch dates for handsets capable of receiving these transmissions.

Plus, cell carriers are like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction — they’re not going to be ignored. AT&T and Verizon hawk phones that offer their own mobile TV solution through Qualcomm’s MediaFLO mobile TV technology, which will be expanding into 100 new markets this year. The OMVC says it’s in discussions with carriers, but no agreements are in place yet.

However, since Albrecht wrote that, a few other advances make the Mobile Content Venture look like it may not last the decades that my teddy bear has. Qualcommm’s competitive effort, called MediaFLO, has been a disappointment, leading it to attempt some type of sale of the business. Plus, as time has passed, the model of delivering broadcast TV as it airs on the television only becomes more and more obsolete. In part, this is because more and more people time- and place-shift their television viewing — using digital video recorders, as well as services like Hulu or even Netflix — but also because much of the content consumed on mobile devices is coming from places like YouTube.

The other potential hurdles are the very airwaves the broadcasters plan to use. Each broadcast has about 6 megahertz in which to send out its signal, but much of the TV content can be sent out in much smaller bands (or so say the FCC engineers). Given the demand for mobile broadband to deliver services that would include the web, voice and yes, video, the FCC is trying to wrangle some of that spectrum currently held by the broadcasters. The Mobile Content Venture tries to get around this by saying in its release:

MCV’s mobile video service complements the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Initiative. MCV offers consumers access to mobile video content by utilizing existing broadcast spectrum from its launch partners to offer a breadth of mobile video, including sports and entertainment content. The technology being deployed by MCV will permit all broadcasters, in a scalable manner, to deliver popular video content in a spectrally efficient manner as compared to wireless 3G and 4G technology.

It is true that taking some video off the operator’s networks would be useful, but again, we’re forced back to the realization that the video it’s removing would be anyone watching ad-supported broadcast content in real time. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a broadcast world anymore, so the theoretical burden removed form the network is fairly small.

Anyhow, like Sisyphus, the broadcasters keep pushing, and with the station upgrades by late 2011, the venture says it will deliver mobile video service in markets representing more than 40 percent of the US population. Service consisting of least two ad-supported free-to-consumer channels in each market will be available in the following markets: New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Houston; Detroit; Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach, Fla.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Greenville, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala; and Knoxville, Tenn.

In the meantime, the group is working with device makers to ensure its signals will reach those interested in the two-channel broadcast offering. Radios that can accept the MCV’s signal will have to be placed in devices in order to watch the content. Mobile Content Venture is a joint venture that includes Fox, ION Television, NBC and Pearl Mobile DTV, LLC. The Pearl member companies include: Belo Corp., Cox Media Group, E.W. Scripps Co., Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Television Inc., Media General Inc., Meredith Corp., Post-Newsweek Stations Inc. and Raycom Media. But big names may not be enough to guarantee success.

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