By Carlo Longino
Lots of mobile operators and content providers are convinced that mobile television is the next big thing for cell phones. While the phone isn't likely to dislodge the plasma screen as anyone's TV set of choice soon, the anytime, anywhere access mobile television promises has a lot of people excited. And while there are already early efforts to broadcast programming to mobile phones, a number of issues—both in terms of content and technology—still need to be worked out.
A company called MobiTV made some of the furtive first steps toward mobile TV when it launched on Sprint nearly two years ago, with about a dozen channels at a pretty low frame rate. It's just recently launched the second version of its product, and now has about 25 channels available on Sprint and Cingular in the US, and a number of other carriers around the world—at rates as high as 15-20 frames per second.
The channels MobiTV offers are a mix of live simulcasts of networks like MSNBC and CNBC, as well as others with prerecorded video, and still more with mobile-specific content. Ben Feinman, MobiTV's director of product management, says some of its most popular content is 3-5 minute videos of things like cartoons, comedy clips or music videos—bite-sized content.
The content mix is something mobile TV providers are trying to figure out, as they realize people don't watch TV on their mobiles the same way they do at home. "Our average session is five to ten minutes," Feinman says, adding that users tend to turn to the service to fill a few spare minutes in their day, rather than sit and watch for an hour. As content providers better understand this, "the application of this medium will evolve like any other," he says. He points out how NBC now has a crew dedicated to creating short news updates specifically for mobile users.
With the rise of DVRs and 500-channel TV services, people don't necessarily watch TV like they used to, falling at the mercy of whatever happens to be on. It's the same with mobile—people want control over what they're watching. Feinman says that MobiTV sees peak usage during breaking news events, and that live sports "is at the top of the list" of what users are asking for. He adds, though, that content tastes are as varied as the audience, and it's getting harder and harder to develop a basic package of channels that caters to everyone. So, just like you might add HBO to your existing cable package, MobiTV now also features niche premium channels.
Of course, there has to be some technology to make all of this possible. Current mobile TV providers in the US and Europe stream their content, typically over high-speed WCDMA or EV-DO networks (though some also work on GPRS and 1xRTT networks at lower quality). Streaming video over mobile networks follows essentially the same model as on the Internet, using unicast technology, meaning every subscriber gets a dedicated stream. This isn't a problem for operators right now, while their 3G networks are new and fairly empty. But as the networks become more popular and fill with traffic, streaming could become a problem since bandwidth is a much more finite resource on mobile networks than on wired ones.
To this end, there are a few different broadcast technologies that are being implemented. In South Korea, operators are using satellite digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) to transmit 11 video and 25 audio channels to mobile phones, while in several European locations, systems using the digital video broadcasting-handhelds (DVB-H) standard are being tested. Crown Castle, which owns a network of cellular base station sites in the US, has plans to build a DVB-H network here, and is currently testing it in Pittsburgh.
Both DMB and DVB-H do essentially the same thing—broadcast video to receivers in mobile phones—and both are variants on digital TV technologies being implemented for standard broadcasts. And what would anything in electronics be without a standards battle? Given its support from Western vendors, DVB-H will likely come in to use in Europe and the US—although American users might find themselves using a third type of network, Qualcomm's MediaFLO. It's a proprietary system that, again, does basically the same thing, but Qualcomm has bought wireless licenses in the US so it can operate the MediaFLO network as well as sell the technology.
There's a big trade-off between broadcast and unicast systems, though, where interactivity and personalization are traded out for spectral efficiency. When programming is being streamed to individuals, that stream can be personalized for each user. When it's broadcasted, everyone receives the same content. People are so used to being able to customize their viewing experience at home, whether it's just being able to flip through 300 channels, or skipping ads with their TiVo that they won't expect much less from the mobile TV experience. This means providers will probably have to call on a mixture of both broadcast and streaming technologies to provide both technically feasible access to the most popular channels, but also the personalized experience users want.
The pipe dream? The ultimate personalization—being able to access the content of your TiVo from your phone, so you can watch just the programs you want, exactly when and where you want. The sticking point isn't the technology, Feinman says, with MobiTV looking at a few different implementations, whether it's accessing TiVo content, having the ability to select and record programs on the phone, or to simply cache a day's worth of content on the device.
"It's not a lot of bits," he says. "It's a question of working through it with the content providers." Rights issues holding back technology? That's almost as surprising as standards battles.
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