Mobile video has a bright future. Mobile TV, not so much


The hype surrounding mobile video is cranking up once again, and this time it appears there’s some steak to go along with the sizzle. Adobe last week said mobile views more than tripled last year over 2011 thanks primarily to surging use of tablets, and Verizon Wireless reported that video now accounts for 50 percent of the traffic on its mobile networks – a figure that is expected to reach 67 percent by 2017. Meanwhile, comScore said last month that the mobile video-watching audience across five major European markets in December had increased 162 percent from the same period in 2011.

Those figures are particularly compelling considering how much of a disaster the mobile video market was just a few years ago. Qualcomm’s $800 million MediaFLO network was the most notable example of how dramatically the industry overestimated demand for mobile video; Aloha Partners and Crown Castle also dipped their toes into the market before realizing that dedicated mobile video networks were unsustainable.

The challenges in bringing broadcast TV to mobile

Unsurprisingly, there’s no shortage of players looking to claim a share of the growing audience of mobile screen-watchers. Traditional online players like Netflix and Google’s YouTube are popular among mobile users, as Sandvine reported last year, and apps like Vine and Cinemagram are also gaining steam. Time Warner Cable this week is expanding it live broadcasts to iOS devices, following the lead of fellow aggregators Comcast Corp. and DirecTV. Perhaps the most interesting segment, though, is the race among local broadcasters to provide traditional TV-style content to mobile gadgets. USA Today last week offered an update on Dyle and MyDTV, competing initiatives from content providers and station owners to deliver over-the-air broadcasts to smartphone users.

And as the Washington Post documented how the traditional broadcasting giants are scrambling to find ways to deal with Aereo, a startup built on a clever – if economically and legally questionable – strategy of using antenna farms that enable users to license individual antennas through which they can receive transmissions to smartphones, tablets or other digital devices. (It’s worth noting that several big broadcasters filed an appeal this week to overturn recent rulings that allow Aereo to redirect those signals to subscribers’ devices for a fee.)

But here’s the rub: While consumption of the entire realm of “mobile video” is clearly on the upswing, a viable business model for “mobile TV” – defined loosely as traditional televised content delivered to mobile devices – has yet to be established. Video clips, video conferencing and even full-length programs will certainly find an audience when they can be delivered on demand, enabling users to initiate a viewing session and pause (or record) it for later.  But scheduled content has always been a difficult proposition in the world of mobile, where users typically watch video when and where they can – on the train, for instance, or maybe as they fall asleep in bed.

Still searching for business models, content partnerships and more

And while the rush to expand their offerings beyond traditional TV is understandable, would-be mobile TV providers face some other big challenges as well. Both Dyle and MyDTV can deliver content only through a plug-in receiver that costs as much as $100 – a price that’s sure to be a deal-breaker for many potential viewers. Both services have a limited number of partnerships in a limited number of markets, both must move quickly to expand their coverage areas, and both need to develop a solid business model – subscription, ad-supported or a combination of the two.

I’m skeptical, though. Tablets certainly are a more attractive platform for watching mobile video than smartphones, but aside from the occasional major sporting event there’s precious little evidence that consumers actually want to watch traditional broadcast TV on the go on any device. That’s as true now as it was 30 years ago when Sony’s first Watchman was greeted with yawns.

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