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Cell phones channel TV broadcasts

Major rollouts from Cingular and Verizon mean never having to miss an episode of "According to Jim."

More than half of U.S. cell phone customers will soon be offered the wireless equivalent of cable TV in the largest expansion yet of the North American mobile video market.

Cingular Wireless on Tuesday began selling MobiTV, making scores of shows available for $10 a month, plus the cost of downloading data. While offered nationwide, MobiTV is only available on a half-dozen Cingular handsets, including Motorola's white-hot Razr.

In a week, Verizon's $15-a-month V Cast debuts in 32 cities and on a small number of devices.

Analysts warn that some operators' slow wireless networks mean consumers may have to endure the occasional "slide show" effect that turns what's supposed to be full motion into just a succession of still photos. But Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeff Nelson says that V Cast, delivered at the speed of a slow digital subscriber line (DSL), is "TV, not a slide show."

The type of content ranges. Some, like a version of Fox's hit "24," are specially made for cell phones. Such original content usually runs three to five minutes per episode. Users can also tune in to such popular channels as ABC, CNN and NBC and watch the shows being aired at that time. The carriers' one-two punch will give 91 million more U.S. cell phone subscribers their first shot at sucking up TV on the run--if they get the right handsets.

Cell phone operators are turning to TV to boost sales of wireless broadband services, meant to make up for revenue lost to price-cutting as years of aggressive competition drove down the cost of handsets and voice minutes. But U.S. sales of such features have been disappointing because, unlike in Asia and Europe, Americans are more apt to turn to their PCs to cruise the Internet. While both Verizon and Sprint say wireless data sales topped $1 billion last year, the revenue falls far short of that pocketed by carriers outside the United States.

Market analyst In-Stat gives such services in the United States a chance. Cell phone video generated a relative pittance, $32.7 million, in revenue last year for Sprint and AT&T Wireless. With Cingular and Verizon now entering the market, revenue should more than quintuple over the next four years, In-Stat believes.