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Free TV for cell phones and mobile devices

The Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area will be the first region in the country to allow cell phone subscribers to get free broadcast TV on their handsets.

cell phone TV

Free TV service could soon be coming to a cell phone near you.

Broadcasters announced Monday at the National Association of Broadcaster's annual conference in Las Vegas that a new pilot program is launching in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area that will allow people to watch free mobile digital television on cell phones and other mobile devices.

Local affiliate stations for CBS, NBC, PBS, Ion, and Fox will broadcast their programs beginning in late summer for mobile devices, which includes cell phones, laptops and car entertainment systems.

Broadcasters throughout the country are switching to all-digital transmission in June as part of a government mandate. And as part of the switch, some broadcasters will also broadcast their over-the-air TV signals on a digital sub-channel for mobile devices. The standard that will be used to transmit the signal is called ATSC Mobile DTV. And the hope is that consumer electronics makers, like cell phone manufacturers, will include the technology in their products so that they can receive the signals.

The trial in the Baltimore-Washington area is expected to kick off later this summer. But it's only the first step toward offering free mobile DTV. Broadcasters in 28 markets, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta, said they will be broadcasting their signals in mobile DTV.

The biggest hurdle for the new mobile TV service is building a viable ecosystem of products and services around the technology. For example, right now there are no devices that even support mobile DTV. But some companies have built prototypes. LG and Samsung have already been showing off mobile DTV handsets. Dell is showing off an Inspiron Mini10 Netbook PC with a built-in Mobile TV tuner at the NAB show. And other consumer electronics products have also been shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show and CTIA, both of which took place earlier this year.

But devices won't likely get into the hands of consumers, unless U.S. carriers subsidize and sell them. And that might be harder to achieve than actually building the devices. In the U.S., wireless operators control the cell phone market. They subsidize handsets and determine which features are available on which devices.

Today, three of the four major wireless operators already offer their own mobile TV services. AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless each sell TV packages for around $10 to $15 per month. These services include a mix of live TV as well as on-demand programming and specialized mobile-only content.

MobiTV, which supplies the back-end for many of these mobile TV services, says a hybrid approach is needed to get operators on board.

"The biggest problem with Mobile DTV is getting the ecosystem in place," said Kay Johansson, CTO of MobiTV. "Right now the service bypasses the carrier. And if there is nothing in it for them, there isn't an incentive for them to offer it."

On Monday, MobiTV announced that it's partnering with Sinclair and PBS to create a hybrid mobile TV service it is calling, MixTV. The MixTV business model combines free mobile DTV with a subscription based seven-day window of on-demand programming. MobiTV is demonstrating how this service would look at the NAB conference this week. The company is also showing off how a hybrid approach could allow broadcasters, mobile operators, and content providers more interactive and personal ways to advertise to consumers.

While MobiTV has grown its mobile TV viewership by at least 100 percent in the last year, the number of people subscribing to such services is still relatively small. At the end of 2008, MobiTV had about 6 million subscribers. But analysts predict that mobile TV market could grow to 50 million users in the next few years. Johansson believes that a hybrid service that offers free local TV shows with premium cable programming, on-demand programming, and made for mobile content will grow the market the fastest.

"I don't think you could reach the 50 million subscriber mark with free-to-air mobile TV alone," he said. "I think you could with a subscription service. But the MixTV model combined with personalized and interactive advertising could accelerate adoption."