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On the Late Show some years ago, David Letterman slipped into his cranky-old-man persona to lament the notion of video on the Internet. Closing his eyes to his trademark squint, he looked at the camera and wondered why anyone would want to watch some herky-jerky picture “that’s the size of a postage stamp.”

Of course, as a technology prognosticator, Letterman was off the mark. Video quality on the Internet has vastly improved, and viewership has exploded in recent years (see last week’s column on the subject). But his assessment is would still be accurate for most of what passes as video on cell phones these days, crunched into an impossibly small screen and struggling (in the United States, anyway) to present live motion over balky networks.

Will TV on cell phones improve as quickly as Internet video did? Cellular networks, manufacturers, and video providers are spending plenty of money to ensure that it does, with near-future technology improvements expected to increase the quality significantly.

So far, companies are exploring three major business models, which offer subscriptions to pre-recorded video clips, live network television, or customized content prepared specifically for cell phones.

Verizon is putting a big marketing push behind its video-clip subscription service, VCast. The service offers fare such as sports highlights, comedy shows, and CNN segments, along with various games, and is currently available in more than 60 metropolitan areas in the United States.

Verizon offers the service within its high-speed EvDo wireless networks. To subscribe to VCast, Verizon users must first sign up for the company’s EvDo service ($60 per month), then pay an additional $15 per month. The clips are downloaded at speeds typically around 500 kb/s– less than half the speed of a home DSL modem, but almost ten times faster than existing cellular data networks.  

Meanwhile, Berkeley CA-based Idetic offers subscribers live television content through its MobiTV service, with programming such as news, sports, and a 24-hour comedy channel. The company’s long-term goal is to build a live, streaming television service that pulls feeds directly from networks either live or on-demand, emulating the cable industry’s mix of subscription access, pay-per-view, and TiVo-like digital recording functions.

MobiTV shows are available through partner cellular carriers such as Cingular, Verizon, and Sprint PCS in the United States and Orange in the U.K. On Monday, September 26, the company will announce that it has reached 500,000 subscribers since it started up almost two years ago. “TV on the cell phone is okay now,” says Clay Owen, a Cingular spokesperson. “But it’s going to get dramatically better later this year when the networks are upgraded.”

The folks at GoTV Networks in Sherman Oaks, CA, have yet another take on cell-phone video. In addition to repurposing network television content, the company is creating customized–and sponsorable–on-demand channels. The offerings range from a women’s health and fashion channel, called Diva, to Pure Phat (“your daily source for everything hip-hop”).

Meanwhile, the networks themselves are looking at ways to create their own mobile content for sale to cell-phone subscribers. ABC, for example, has an entire division devoted to mobile content. (Updates on the ABC hit series Lost and Desperate Housewives are also part of GoTV’s offerings.)

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