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Microsoft, BT, Virgin team on mobile TV

Software giant announces partnership with BT and Virgin Mobile to offer a new mobile TV service in the U.K.

Microsoft announced on Tuesday a partnership with British Telecom Group and Virgin Mobile to launch a mobile TV service in the United Kingdom.

For the past several months, BT has been building a network to broadcast digital TV over mobile phone networks. BT said in January that it plans to offer the network, called BT Movio, to mobile carriers that want to offer TV service to their customers.

The first mobile operator to use the BT network to deliver TV service is Virgin Mobile. The two companies conducted a four-month trial last year with roughly 1,000 users in London. Virgin Mobile plans to launch the service sometime this summer. Consumers can expect to get at least five TV stations as part of the initial launch, along with a number of radio channels.

While BT's and Virgin's plans have already been disclosed, the announcement Tuesday at the 3GSM World Conference in Barcelona was the first time Microsoft's affiliation with the service had been made public. Microsoft has been working for months with BT and Virgin Wireless to provide necessary software for packaging and viewing the TV content shown on mobile phones.

The service will work on a new phone called the Virgin Triliogy, which was developed jointly by BT, TTPCom and HTC, one of the world's biggest design manufacturers for mobile devices. The phone will run Windows Mobile 5.0 and will have one-button access to live digital television.

"There are varying degress of opinions on where the role for live video on mobile phones is," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, during his keynote speech in Barcelona. "With the appropriate amount of cleverness from operators and content makers, I think live TV will be important in may ways, shapes and forms. We're very excited about this partnership."

Microsoft also provides software to Verizon Wireless, which has been offering its V Cast TV service in the United States since early 2005.

Microsoft's involvement with the BT Movio service is important because it's yet another validation of the entire mobile TV market, some analysts say.

"There's been some question about whether or not the mobile TV market would be big or not," said Iain Gillott, president of iGR, a market research firm specializing in mobile and wireless networks. "But the involvement of Microsoft legitimizes the market in a way."

There has been a lot of talk and hype surrounding mobile TV over the past year. So far, mobile-TV services have not been a big hit with consumers. But mobile operators are looking at mobile TV as a big money maker for the future as prices for voice minutes continue to drop. They hope that people will turn on their phones and pay a premium to watch news clips, mini soap operas and sports clips.

In the United States, Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Sprint Nextel are already offering mobile TV service. But most experts agree that current 3G, or third-generation, technology won't be sufficient to handle large volumes of live TV viewing. As a result, several companies, including BT, are developing separate networks that can handle video traffic.

While BT uses a technology called DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), others, such as Qualcomm's MediaFlo division and Crown Castle's Modeo subsidiary, use different technology. Modeo uses a technology called DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handhelds), which is very similar to DAB. MediaFlo is developing a homegrown technology it calls Flo. Verizon has already indicated that it plans to work with MediaFlo once its network is finished later this year.

Handset makers are also preparing for the mobile TV market. In January, Motorola, Nokia and Intel formed an alliance to support DVB-H technology. Samsung and MediaFlo demonstrated the Flo technology at the Consumer Electronics show last month.

In the end, it will be consumers who ultimately decide if watching TV on a tiny screen is really worth it.