AT&T to offer live mobile TV in May

Company has finally set a date to start offering MediaFlo's live mobile TV service. But the big question is whether anyone will actually tune in.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

AT&T said Thursday that it will start offering live mobile TV service from MediaFlo in May, but will anyone be watching?

AT&T first announced its partnership with MediaFlo in February 2007. Back then it said it expected the service to begin by the end of 2007. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told Reuters the company waited until May to offer the service because it was "a brand new service on a brand new network, and two brand new devices."

The new service will operate on two new handsets, the LG Vu and the Samsung Access. Subscribers will get access to eight channels of live TV plus two exclusive channels. AT&T said it would make pricing information available in May when the service officially launches.

MediaFlo USA is a subsidiary of wireless chipmaker Qualcomm. Using analog broadcast TV wireless spectrum it bought several years ago, MediaFlo has built a wireless network to deliver broadcast TV service to mobile devices.

Verizon Wireless, which was the first wireless provider to work with MediaFlo, has been offering the service for more than a year. Verizon hasn't published specific subscriber numbers, but Qualcomm's CEO Paul Jacobs said during a speech at the Tech Policy Summit in Hollywood on Wednesday that the uptake has been going slower than the company would like, according to RCR Wireless News.

Jacobs blames the carriers for not advertising the service enough. He said that carriers might be waiting for MediaFlo to increase its coverage, which he said will happen in February 2009 when TV broadcasters will transition to digital TV, the article said.

Qualcomm, which owns spectrum for the analog TV Channel 55, has had to negotiate with broadcasters in each market to be able to use the spectrum that some of them have used to broadcast TV. The network is currently operating in about 55 markets and is available to about 130 million people, said Gina Lombardi, president of MediaFlo USA. Markets where MediaFlo has launched include Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, and Philadelphia.

But some mobile experts question whether people really want to watch TV on their phones. Verizon is charging $15 a month extra for eight channels of live TV. Perhaps the price point is still too expensive for consumers who on average spend about $40 to $50 a month on cell phone service. And as the economy dips further into a recession, I question how willing people will be to spend extra money on what I'd consider an unnecessary service like mobile TV.

It will be interesting to see AT&T's customers' response to the live TV service. AT&T already offers an on-demand video service to customers who buy certain 3G data packages.

If consumers don't fall in love with live mobile TV it could spell trouble for Qualcomm's MediaFlo USA, which has spent millions of dollars acquiring spectrum and building the network. Right now the company wholesales the service to mobile operators. But Verizon and AT&T are currently its only customers.

Lombardi said the company is in talks with other wireless operators in the U.S. But the company is also considering offering its service on any device with a small screen.

"We've had a lot of interest from car manufacturers," she said. "We've even had refrigerator manufacturers ask if we could provide TV service to the tiny screens they put on refrigerators."

Lombardi said the service could be sold much like satellite radio, which allows people to subscribe to a monthly service for about $10 per month. If subscribers want satellite radio service on additional devices, they get a slight discount on the monthly subscription for the second and third device.

"We are looking into all of these options," she said. "If there's interest, we don't want to turn away from any opportunity knocking at our door."