FAQ: The lowdown on mobile TV

TV on mobile phones is expected to be a hot new service that will generate lots of revenue for carriers.

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
6 min read
Television junkies looking for highlights of the latest game or a rundown of what happened on their favorite television show don't have to look any further than their mobile phones.

Mobile TV, or television and video adapted for the small screen of cell phones and personal digital assistants, is being hyped as the next big moneymaker for mobile phone operators. Services are already gaining popularity in Asia and Europe. And now U.S. operators are getting into the game with services of their own.

Entertainment giants, such as MTV Networks, News Corp.'s Fox, and the Walt Disney Company are busy re-editing shows and creating new content for the small screen. Like the cell phone operators, they too see big bucks in selling TV on the go.

Apple's recent announcement of a video iPod has gotten more people talking about mobile TV. Apple has also added music videos and popular TV shows such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" to iTunes to its list of download offerings.

But with all the hype surrounding these new services, it's hard to tell who is offering what and whether or not mobile TV will actually become a big deal here in the U.S. CNET News.com has answered some basic questions to offer a little clarity on the subject.

What's the difference between live or streaming TV and on-demand TV?
Mobile TV comes in two distinct flavors: live TV, which is video streamed live across the network directly to phones, and edited clips, which are produced and offered on demand to subscribers.

Live mobile TV is similar to television you'd watch at home via cable or satellite. Channels such as MSNBC or CNN broadcast live over the cell phone network, and viewers tune into certain channels to view it.

On-demand TV comes as packaged video clips. Some of the clips are re-edited versions of existing TV shows, and others are specially created content for the mobile network.

For example, NBC Mobile produces short clips from "The Today Show" and other NBC programs and packages them together. News Corp., which owns Twentieth Century Fox Television, has edited its reality show "The Simple Life" for mobile viewing. Sports leagues, like Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, put together one to two-minute highlights for mobile viewers.

In addition to repackaging existing programs, some companies are also creating new content for the tiny screen. News Corp.'s Fox has produced several "mobisodes" or serials: "Sunset Hotel," "Love and Hate," and "24: Conspiracy". MTV Networks is developing an animated series called "Samurai Love God."

Who offers mobile TV service?
The three big cell phone companies in the U.S.--Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and Cingular Wireless--offer mobile TV services. Several regional cell phone carriers, such as Midwest Wireless based in Minnesota and Western Wireless in Washington state, also offer mobile TV.

Several overseas carriers also offer service. SK Telecom in South Korea and NTT DoCoMo in Japan have been at the forefront of developing mobile TV technology. Orange and O2 in the United Kingdom are two other examples. And the three major wireless carriers in Canada--Bell Mobility, Rogers Wireless, and Telus--offer TV for mobile devices.

How do the mobile TV services in the U.S. differ from each other? And how much do they cost?
Verizon Wireless offers a service called V Cast over its EV-DO wireless network for $15 per month. The subscription includes 300 channels of packaged video clips between one and four minutes in length. Channels include sports, weather, news, and concert videos. Users can also access sports highlights from the NBA and Nascar for between $1 and $2 per viewing. Verizon does not offer live TV.

Sprint offers a total of 31 different channels. Its Sprint TV includes packaged video clips, and Sprint TV Live includes live TV clips. The company also offers premium channels. It gets all of the content for Sprint TV and Sprint TV Live from MobiTV, a company that specializes in taking television feeds and sending them over cellular networks. Subscribers can access video on its new EV-DO network or on the existing Sprint PCS network. The quality is better over the EV-DO network.

Sprint TV and Sprint TV Live each cost $9.99 per month. Additional premium channels are offered for between $3.95 and $9.99 per month. In order to access any of the TV channels, customers must also subscribe to one of Sprint's data plans. The basic plan costs $10 per month. A special Sprint Vision multimedia plan costs $20 per month and includes Sprint TV.

Cingular Wireless doesn't offer any packaged video clips. But it offers

MobiTV's streaming television service over its existing data network called EDGE. It will also offer video over its new 3G network when it is deployed. For $10 per month, Cingular Wireless MobiTV subscribers get access to unlimited viewing of 25 channels. In addition to the MobiTV subscription, customers must also sign up for a data package, which ranges from $4.99 per month for 1 MB of data usage to a $19.99 package for unlimited data usage.

Can mobile viewers get video from anyone other than a cellular carrier?
Yes, SmartVideo offers live and on demand TV service to mobile devices running Microsoft's Windows operating system. The company sells directly to customers and requires users to download the software to access video content. The service costs $12.95 per month for about 12 basic channels and an additional $4.95 for premium channels. Users must also subscribe to a data usage package from their cell phone provider.

How popular is mobile TV in the U.S.?
According to the industry research firm the Yankee Group, only about 500,000 people subscribe to a mobile TV service today. That's small potatoes considering there are roughly 200 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S.

Who is watching TV on their cell phones?
Experts say the typical mobile TV viewer is between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. About two-thirds of current viewers are male, said Dave Whetstone, chief marketing officer for MobiTV.

Do you need a special handset to watch TV on your phone?
Yes, most new 3G handsets on the market today will handle some video. MobiTV, which powers the Sprint and Cingular services, supports between 50 and 60 different handsets. But compatibility depends on the carrier used. Companies like Samsung, LG, Sanyo, Motorola, Nokia and Palm all make these phones.

How much do the phones cost?
In the U.S., some carriers may offer video-enabled phones for free. Palm's Treo is considered a high-end device, and it costs around $350. In South Korea, Samsung's SCH-100 swivel-head screen phone used to deliver video over a special satellite network costs about $700.

What is the quality of the video?
Video quality depends on several factors, including the quality of the phone and the network that it is sent over. On a 3G cellular network, video runs at 15 frames per second, while regular broadcast television runs at 30 frames per second. Sprint and Cingular also allow users to view video over their existing cell networks, which can run as slow as 3 to 4 frames per second. The phone itself can also determine the quality of the video. The more processing power available in the device, the better the video will look.

Can the cellular network really handle television?
It depends. Some analysts say that if too many people sign up for video services, current and newly built 3G wireless networks could be overwhelmed. This is what happened in South Korea when carriers initially rolled out streaming video services there. Within eight to nine months, the network became congested with video traffic. SK Telecom quickly realized that a new approach was necessary. So it built a separate satellite network to broadcast its mobile TV service.

Several technology companies, such as Qualcomm and Nokia, as well as standards bodies, are already working on solutions.

Are there other technology hurdles that need to be worked out before mobile TV becomes a hit in the U.S.?
Yes, currently wireless carriers each have separate networks that do not share common standards and as a result don't hand off calls. This differs from the traditional telephone network that passes off calls among carriers.

Handset makers also don't use common standards. Instead, they use proprietary operating systems and application development platforms. What's more, screen sizes and processing capabilities also vary among cell phones and PDAs.

Put these all together and you've got a very fragmented market, which makes it more difficult for companies like MobiTV and GoTV, which produces video clips for cell phone carriers, to deliver content quickly to the mass market. Because of all these differences in the networks and the handsets, they have to customize the distribution for each type of phone.

Another obstacle is battery life. Right now, most phones run out of battery after two or three hours of television viewing. This might not be a problem for earlier adopters, but it likely won't fly with mainstream America.