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Mobile TV gets on a roll

Consumers face a growing selection of products, services and competing technologies. But just where should they tune in? Photos: TV on the go

After a lackluster start, mobile TV is generating buzz again. Electronics makers, wireless operators and cell phone technology firms are betting big money that consumers on the go will soon clamor for TVs that they can tote in purses and pockets.

"The one message that came out loud and clear from our market research was that people who like TV like the idea of mobile TV," said Jeffrey Lorbeck, senior vice president at MediaFlow, the Qualcomm subsidiary that is deploying the company's high-speed wireless network in the U.S.

But the gulf between the idea and the reality of mobile TV--at least at this point in its development--still presents a few challenges to the consumer. Before TV fans can watch live NBA games or CNN broadcasts on their cell phones, they have to wade through a dizzying number of new video-enabled gadgets as well as special services and technologies, some with impenetrable acronyms like EV-DO and DVB-H.

Adding to the confusion are emerging competitive battles over signal transmission standards. Just this week, a group of companies that includes Intel, Nokia and Texas Instruments announced that they were joining forces to encourage open standards for TV broadcasts to mobile devices. The consortium, called the Mobile DTV Alliance, is promoting DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting--Handheld), a technology that bypasses mobile networks and broadcasts directly to millions of handsets simultaneously.

Transmission networks in development include broadcast systems being built by MediaFlo, a subsidiary of Qualcomm that uses a technology called FLO, and Modeo, a DVB-H proponent owned by Crown Castle International. These systems deliver TV programming on networks that overlay existing 3G wireless networks. Another TV transmission technology, TDtv, developed by IPWireless, uses existing 3G networks to "multicast" TV signals to subscribers.

Ultimately, of course, it will be up to the wireless providers to decide which technology is most cost-effective for them. But pressure also is mounting to make things more reliable and user-friendly for prospective customers. Research firm In-Stat estimates that 1.1 million people purchased mobile video content last year in the U.S. but expects that number to rise to 30 million in 2010.

Mobile TV handhelds

For years, stakeholders in mobile television have waited for mass adoption, but TV fans were turned off by the viewing quality of technologies such as streaming video, which, with its sometimes stalling, blurry images, tended to resemble a slide show more than full-motion TV.

The industry has since steadily improved image quality, and companies like MobiTV, which provides the mobile TV service for cell phone operators Sprint and Cingular, are now transmitting data at about 15 to 20 frames per second, according to Jason Taylor, a MobiTV spokesman. In comparison, broadcast TV transmits data at about 30 frames per second.

Emeryville, Calif.-based MobiTV, which has more than 500,000 subscribers, offers more than 30 channels that include live and on-demand content. Sprint customers pay $9.99 a month for MobiTV. Cingular MobiTV subscribers pay $10 a month to get unlimited viewing of 25 channels but must also sign up for a data package whose options range from 1MB of data usage for $4.99 per month to a $19.99 package for unlimited data usage.

A CNBC broadcast viewed this week on a Palm Treo 650 and carried via MobiTV appeared choppy only infrequently.

Data delivery rates will zoom once carriers move to high-speed networks, says Taylor. For instance, MobiTV's video content is "broadcast quality" when running over Sprint's wireless high-speed data service, or EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized), Taylor said.

Dutch electronics giant Royal Philips Electronics is preparing to bring its TV-on-cellular chipset to the United States. Handsets with the chips should hit North American shelves later this year. To ensure that content is available, Philips has partnered with Crown Castle's Mobile Media.

Handsets for every network
Crown Castle's Modeo has acquired terrestrial rights to 5 megahertz of L-band spectrum and will launch its mobile broadcast network this year.

That's why cell phone makers are hurrying new video-enabled phones to market. Nokia is due to release the N92, among the first mobile-TV handhelds, in the second half of the year, said Bill Plummer, Nokia's vice president of external affairs.

"It's just like watching TV, but in this case the remote and TV are the same thing," Plummer said.

The N92 features an antiglare 2.8-inch color screen that sits underneath the phone's surface. To watch video, a user just flips open the screen.

We've seen a lot of development in the last six months. The sector is still in the early stages.
--Scott Smyser, principle analyst for consumer electronics, iSuppli

The N92 will operate on DVB-H technology, which is being tested in 40 markets worldwide. The phone also features a radio, an MP3 player, a 2-megapixel camera and a video recorder. Plummer would not disclose the phone's retail price.

In October, Samsung launched the Vision Multimedia Phone MM-A940, which is compatible with Sprint's EV-DO wireless network. The phone retails for $399.99 ($249.99 after rebate). Samsung and LG Electronics also are developing handsets compatible with MediaFlo broadcast transmissions.

For sports fans, Sanyo offers the MVP phone, which supports the EV-DO network and includes video-download capability tied to its partnership with Mobile ESPN. More firmly in the mobile TV arena, Sanyo recently introduced the MM-9000, which operates on the Sprint Power Vision Network. The network offers three levels of service, including one with live feeds from the NFL Network, Fox Sports, ABC News Now, the Weather Channel and other content providers.

Motorola, which like Nokia will make phones compatible with Modeo broadcast technology, is developing a mobile TV phone the company has declined identify. LG displayed four handsets that supported varying versions of mobile TV at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. Three of the four--including the LD1200 (T-DMB) and the SB130 (S-DMB) model phones--were designed for the Korean market.

The SB130 can pause a live broadcast, according to LG, so a user can pick up a call. Once the call is finished, the user can then restart the broadcast where he or she left off.

Among the Palm handhelds that are video-enabled, the Treo 650 and 700 models also offer phone capability.

"We've seen a lot of development in the last six months," said Scott Smyser, principle analyst for consumer electronics at iSuppli. "The sector is still in the early stages. At CES, Samsung, LG and Nokia all displayed handsets with live video capabilities."