September 3, 2005
Big Bucks Back Next Mobile Frontier: Broadcast TV
SAN FRANCISCO -- Want to watch TV on your mobile phone? The wireless industry is betting billions that you do.
And they're not talking about just downloading or streaming on-demand videoclips to your phone. Efforts are afoot to broadcast TV programming nationwide to a new generation of mobile phones that can tune in, just like an at-home TV.
Despite the billions of dollars U.S. wireless operators have spent upgrading their networks to offer such multimedia content as videos and music, they are insufficient for the job.
The problem is that they are designed for two-way, on-demand access. To broadcast programming on such networks would require that each show be sent to each subscriber separately -- an impossibly time-consuming and expensive proposition.
"It's very difficult to offer high-definition TV on a handset through existing networks," says Andrew Cole, an analyst with A.T. Kearney. "You have to offload that through a separate network."
Several initiatives are under way to achieve just that, a separate wireless network built specifically for one-way multimedia broadcasting.
BUILDING THE NETWORK
Leading the charge in the United States is wireless bellwether Qualcomm, which has invested $800 million to date in its vision for mobile broadcast TV.
Called MediaFLO, this effort requires Qualcomm to act much like a cable company, such as Comcast. It must build its own content-delivery system, consisting of an entirely new network of wireless transmitters, on airwaves paid for by the company. Additionally, it requires a new receiver -- also built by Qualcomm -- that manufacturers will have to incorporate into future phone models if they want their customers to be able to receive such broadcasts. Finally, the company is negotiating airing rights to programs from major media outlets.
Once MediaFLO is operational, Qualcomm hopes to sell the service on a wholesale basis to wireless operators, who would provide it to their subscribers as a complement to their own mobile video services.
The result is a service that offers 15-20 channels of real-time broadcast TV displayed on a mobile phone at 30 frames per second in HD resolution, on par with standard TV. That is twice the frame rate of Verizon's current VCast high-speed video service, with three times the picture quality.
In addition to the broadcast programming, the MediaFLO system supports a feature called "clipcasting." Users can select content they would like pushed automatically to their phone and replaced when new installments are created, much like a podcast. Content can be refreshed hourly, daily or weekly, and can consist of video and audio programming.
Qualcomm is positioning MediaFLO as a service for all carriers; wireless subscribers, regardless of their carrier, will have access to the same MediaFLO programming.
Carriers could then offer exclusive, on-demand, premium programming of their own to set themselves apart. In addition, carriers could incorporate the MediaFLO stream with such applications as a music store or ringtone store. So a user listening to or watching a music channel via MediaFLO can use the carrier network to buy the ringtone or full-song download of any given track.
"It's like gluing your TV and Internet together," says Jeff Lorbeck, VP and general manager of Qualcomm's MediaFLO division.
As usual, the testing ground for such a dedicated multimedia system is in Asia. Korean operator SK Telekom currently offers a wireless multimedia service using a satellite-based adjunct delivery system called Digital Media Broadcasting. Since its April launch, the DMB service has attracted more than 100,000 subscribers with seven channels of video and 20 of audio. A similar system has been operational in Japan for years.
Also making a play is another wireless giant -- Nokia. Its Digital Video Broadcast-Handheld technology is being tested across Europe by several wireless carriers and in the United States by partner Crown Castle Mobile Media.
But like any new technology initiative, the success depends on programming. With this in mind, Qualcomm is aggressively lobbying such well-known brands as ESPN, MTV, Comedy Central and CNN to include their content in the MediaFLO service.
Qualcomm does not expect commercial implementations until next fall, but it already has the support of several content providers.