CTIA: Mobile TV Trying To Sort Itself Out

It’s pretty obvious that mobile TV hasn’t been a great success yet, for any number of reasons. Content problems, cost and other business model issues, lack of handsets — they’ve all conspired to keep mobile TV down. But I’ve seen a few things here at CTIA that are making me wonder if the mobile TV world is starting to get its act together.

Let’s recap the hurdles quickly:

First, content. Overall, I think this remains a big problem, mainly because mobile TV services are trying to emulate the linear channels used by regular TV. One of the big selling points of mobile TV is that it lets users tune in whenever they have a moment, so trying to force them to fit to a set broadcast schedule doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Second, the business model. For example, AT&T’s MediaFLO service will cost $15 per month when it launches, and require users to buy a $200 or $300 handset. That’s a big ask for 8 channels.

Third, handsets. There still aren’t a lot of mobile TV-enabled handsets available in the US and European markets, and those that are available remain pricey.

So what’s changing? All of these. Content is getting better, in terms of availability (for instance, AT&T inked deals to carry CNN and a Sony Pictures channel), but also in terms of technology. At least one of Motorola’s new mobile TV receivers has a 30-minute video buffer limited only by available storage space on the device, and the company envisions giving users the ability to set favorites or schedule recordings. Think video RSS — you could set the device to grab the latest episode of SportsCenter so it’s ready for your morning commute, or grab anything matching certain keywords.

Handsets are slowly getting better, but receiver technology won’t be confined specifically to handsets with embedded receivers. One of the cooler things I saw yesterday was the PacketVideo Telly mobile video receiver. It’s a matchbox-sized device that can receive content from DVB-H or MediaFLO mobile TV networks, then it shares them to a handset over Wi-Fi. That means most any Wi-Fi-enabled device can receive mobile TV. Here’s a video I took of the device working with an iPhone:

After the iPhone connects to the device over Wi-Fi, the user just opens up the web browser and surfs to a URL that holds the TV service’s program guide. They click on the show they want to watch, and it begins streaming. So the receiver has a web server built into it, which opens up a lot of possibilities down the road. Meanwhile, PV can also create standalone apps to access Telly — for instance, they have a Symbian app that adds a lot of extra features beyond just the program guide.

A device like Telly means users aren’t so limited in their choice of handsets if they want mobile TV, and it also allows users to add mobile TV service without upgrading if they have a Wi-Fi-enabled device. (A PV rep says it’s also possible to use Bluetooth for local connectivity, but the Telly doesn’t yet support it.)

The business model is changing a little, but remains perhaps the biggest stumbling block. Sprint, for instance, includes its streaming mobile TV service in its flat-rate $100-gets-you-everything plan. But FLO services in the US still carry somewhat high monthly fees. The obvious answer seems to be that prices need to drop, but that will force operators to look at mobile TV as something other than a direct revenue-generator. Something like the Telly could help here, as well, by allowing operators to reduce or perhaps even eliminate the additional subsidy they have to shell out for mobile TV handsets.

I don’t see mobile TV becoming hugely popular in the US and Europe anytime soon, but it does look like things could slowly be coming together for the service.

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