After Hours

Cheat Sheet: Mobile TV

Update: Watch this space…

What's all this about mobile TV then? Is that when I download clips onto my phone? People falling over, pop videos, stuff like that?
Mobile TV means video content that's either streamed or broadcast direct to your mobile phone - rather than video content that is downloaded and saved onto your phone for later viewing. That's known as mobile video.

Here in the UK, all the current mobile TV offerings are streamed to users who have subscribed to a mobile TV service - there's no pure-play broadcast mobile TV on offer. UK operators touting mobile telly offerings are relying on streaming data over 3G networks, so users must have a 3G handset.

Streaming, broadcast… Frankly, I'm confused!
I'm not surprised. The nascent world of mobile TV is awash with fiendish acronyms (more on these later) and tales of spectrum lust. Plus standards battles are still being played out so the pieces are in flux as it were.

The key point is broadcasting is a process that sends data from one to many, while streaming is a one-to-one data transfer and can therefore be hamstrung by bandwidth limitations. So it's probably fair to say operators in the UK are currently overreaching themselves by badging streamed video offerings as mobile TV when they are not technically broadcasting. To get even more technical, they're 'unicasting'.

Crumbs. But does that matter? I mean, if it looks like mobile TV and smells like mobile TV…
Sadly it does matter. As I mentioned before, there are problems with using 3G networks for mobile TV. Streaming video over 3G is bandwidth-heavy so this means users can have their telly-watching capped by operators. Moreover, if there's a large number of people in the same mobile cell attempting to watch the same thing - say a World Cup football final - the signal quality can degrade. So imagine, just as Michael Owen steps up to boot that crucial penalty…

Ouch. I get the picture.
Indeed. Or rather you don't get the picture. So for mobile telly to be true to its big brother TV, it needs its own network. And that's where the standards battles, spectrum lust and fiendish acronyms come into play…

Hang on a minute. How come no one in the UK is doing broadcast mobile TV if it's better than TV-over-3G?
Ah, it wasn't always so. Virgin Mobile jumped bravely into the bona fide mobile telly world last year using a wholesale offering from BT known as Movio.

Virgin's service worked on a mobile telly standard called DAB-IP, which shares the network with DAB digital radio. The service had four TV channels and there was only one compatible handset so it was a modest offering to say the least. Needless to say it didn't do massively well - there were rumours subscribers numbered fewer than 10,000. The ending was not a happy one either: the service is now defunct as BT pulled the plug on Movio.

Any existing Virgin Mobile TV subscribers will get their telly switched off for good at the end of January 2008, when BT finally stops broadcasting Movio.

OK, so not a case of roaring success stories all round then. But what's holding things up? Is it that people don't care for mobile TV or is it down to problems with the technology?
Now you're cooking. At the moment it's not clear whether consumers will or won't fall over themselves to watch mobile TV - although Juniper Research has predicted tiny-screen broadcasting will garner revenues of $6.6bn by 2012 - because it's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Seeing as there is no dominant standard, handset-makers are reluctant to jump in with both feet since they can't be sure which way the market will go. And a lack of handsets holds the whole thing up since it limits the potential reach of the technology. Essentially, standards fragmentation is leading to market hesitation.

In the UK there is also a need to wait for spectrum to become available. Operators are eyeing up spectrum that's currently being used by analogue TV as it would be cost effective and has the right wavelength and characteristics for mobile telly. But they can't get their hands on that until 2012 when the digital switchover happens. Which is another reason for procrastination - and making use of 3G networks in the meanwhile.

The cost of building out a mobile TV network is enough to make even the most cash-flashing operator pause for thought. So until a dominant standard emerges operators are not going to want to throw stacks of cash at building infrastructure that might end up being underused. After all, they might be feeling slightly burnt by past experience (think: 3G). In the meanwhile, offering something called 'mobile telly' helps them prime their customers to the idea of watching TV programmes on their handsets.

So it's pretty much stalemate then?
Well, there does seem to be some movement in Europe. Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for information, media and society, has talked of the importance of the region backing one standard so it doesn't get overtaken by the rest of the world. And the EC has recently thrown its weight behind one mobile TV standard called DVB-H, aka digital video broadcasting - handheld.

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