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While wireless operators won’t openly discuss how many consumers have signed up for these services, Ken Hyers, a principal analyst with ABI Research, estimates that at the end of 2004, there were more than 350,000 U.S. wireless subscribers tuning into some kind of televised programming on their phones. That number may have as much as doubled in recent months – Verizon and Cingular only launched their services in 2005.  By the end of 2010, Hyers expects that roughly 10 percent of all U.S. cell phone users will be checking their handset for live feeds of news and sports reports, movie clips, stand-up comedy routines, or even so-called ‘mobisodes’ – programs tailored to the smaller screen and the shorter time spans associated with mobile device use.

Knoop says that the development of these televised services for cell phones has been driven by “a number of different factors,” including support from handset manufacturers, who have included media players in phones, as well as the “desire by wireless carriers to drive [up] their average revenue per user,” or how much money the carriers make on each customer. Since competition among the consolidating wireless carrier market is forcing all the major players to cut pricing on their voice rate plans, encouraging U.S. subscribers to use data services – like accessing television or video clips – may be a carrier’s best way of increasing revenues. 

In the race to lock in those cell phone-watching eyeballs, Sprint PCS arguably captured an early lead – the wireless operator has been offering its multimedia content service for nearly two and a half years. Since Sprint launched its initial offering, 1KTV – which, at first, Knoop admits, was more akin to a “slide show with audio” than the slicker-looking offerings that Sprint and other providers have today – the cellular service has developed three other multimedia televised content services. These include MobiTV, which offers live television feeds, and, in late 2004, Sprint TV, which according to Knoop is the most advanced of Sprint’s multimedia offers, with the broadest array of content.

The eponymous Sprint TV currently offers 17 channels, including news clips from NBC and CNN, Fox sports, music, and cartoons. In addition, its video quality – at up to 7-10 frames per second (fps) – is much better than the jumpy feeds of its first service. (Regular television feeds run at about 30 fps.) By the time Sprint rolls out its high-speed EV-DO network early next year, Knoop expects that the frame rate will increase to 15 fps and the audio will be CD quality.

Rival Verizon Wireless, which launched its VCast service in March, already boasts 15 fps, according to Alex Bloom, the company’s director of multimedia services. Bloom is quick to point out that VCast is more a “video clip-based service” than linear television delivered to cell phone. Encapsulated news, weather, sports, and entertainment clips from content providers like CNN, NBC, ESPN, and Comedy Central tend to run anywhere from two to five minutes. In addition, subscribers can pay for premium clips – 99 cents for NASCAR highlights or $3.99 for a music video – which they can replay as often as they want.

While VCast is a bit pricier than Sprint TV – $15 a month as compared to about $10 – ABI Research’s Hyers believes that it compares favorably because of its better frame rates, frequently refreshed content, and the fact that “they’re making content strictly for mobile.” 

Verizon has been working closely with content partners to reformat programming for cell phones, and to create new “mobile-centric” programming, such as the buzz-worthy “24: Conspiracy” mobisodes – short episodes based on the popular “24” television series and filmed expressly for the cell phone audience.

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