Is TV on our mobile phones destined to suck? We were leaning
towards yes, after failed attempts by BT and Virgin which went down
quicker than a brick Titanic, and the EU-favoured
DVB-H system, which is going nowhere fast. TV on the Web has exploded, but we tried BBC
iPlayer on the Nokia N96,
and it was a jerky reminder that TV over 3G doesn't really work yet -- and the
networks are none too
happy to be providing the pipe that gets clogged up with our daily fix of
the boob tube.
But on our recent trip over the pond, Qualcomm showed us how
it can be done... if you've got a few years and the budget of a small oil-rich
Qualcomm makes the chips inside mobile phones, including
Snapdragon, which promises thinner, more powerful smart phones. When it decided
to get into chips that could pick up mobile TV, the only drawback was that
there was no such thing -- so it decided to save up a few (billion) pennies and
start broadcasting. $800m, in fact. Since then, it's set up a network of dozens of transmitters
around the US and a state-of-the-art nerve centre, as well as a little
geosynchronous satellite, to show the rest of the world how it's done.
Now that it's shown it's doable, Qualcomm is keen to bring
its mobile TV tech -- dubbed MediaFLO -- to the civilised world of the UK and
Europe. And as a lucky coincidence, it owns a huge part of the UK spectrum.
Click the photo for our thoughts on tiny TV.
Update: A previous version of this story misstated Qualcomm's investment in MediaFLO in the headline. It set them back $800m, or £500m, rather than the £2bn we thought.
Mobile TV isn't on-demand, like iPlayer -- it's streaming TV that's broadcast live, with pause and rewind like on a PVR. That makes it best for big-ticket and live programmes -- the finale of the Apprentice, for example, if you're into watching graduates of former polytechnics humiliate themselves for a minor technology exec with an inflated ego.
Programmes are sucked in to the broadcast centre in Qualcomm City, outside San Diego, via a dedicated satellite, then digitised and fired out automagically in less than five seconds to transmitters that broadcast in the UHF spectrum. Thanks to the US' recent digital switchover, there's a fair slice of that air to spare, and finally the whole switchover malarkey makes sense.
Qualcomm already owns a huge chunk of the UK spectrum, the 40MHz bit of the L band. God only knows what they're planning for it, and their lips are sealed. Judging by the Dalek doctor we saw, it'll be used be our robot overlords to plan our inevitable destruction. But it looks unlikely that Qualcomm will be anxious to shell out the coin in the UK that it did to become a nationwide broadcaster in the US. Instead, it's looking for a partner that's already got a network of antennae covering our green and pleasant land. It did a trial with BSkyB in Cambridge and Manchester in 2006, but there's been no news since then, leaving us wondering if anyone's as ambitious as Qualcomm when it comes to putting TV in our pockets.
We got to grips with the tiny TV while strolling the endless halls of Qualcomm central command, and we were impressed with the non-suckiness of the mini media experience.
One aspect Qualcomm has mastered is flipping channels, which is almost instantaneous. It's much faster than changing Sky or cable, and for addicted channel surfers like us, that's a killer feature.
Images were clear and smooth, and we were impressed that even when cruising along the Californian highway we could still pick up a picture. At rest, the picture was obviously compressed, but both indoors and out it was on a par with a good-quality YouTube video.
MediaFLO sports a schedule guide, which pops up helpfully in less than a second. In their US operation, subscribers pay around £10 per month to see up to 32 channels of familiar networks, such as music network MTV or kids' broadcaster Nickelodeon, and the occasional blitz for events such as the Olympics.
There are parental controls built into MediaFLO, which is handy for a system that shows post-watershed stuff on a device that can be hidden under the covers. But Qualcomm takes it on itself to add an extra layer of censoring on the programmes in its US operation -- and they're already US broadcasts, which make Gordon Ramsay sound like bleepin' Mary Poppins. That means no hand-held naughtiness (that's what she said). That doesn't mean we won't get the swearing to which we've becomed accustomed, however, if and when we see MediaFLO in the UK.