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That’s the quandary facing the third group of companies, the ones that are neither carriers nor content providers: how to claim a place on the mobile-TV network. Though each has a different business model, they all want to force a wedge between the other two groups. For some, that means building the back-end technology that allows mobile carriers to deliver television to cell phones. If a company can integrate itself into the mobile network, becoming a vital part of the delivery process, it can then give itself leverage when it comes to collecting a piece of the data-service-fee pie.

But some third-party companies want to do more than develop technology. In 2003, Sprint wanted to launch cell-phone television, but it had neither the technology nor the content. So Sprint turned to Emeryville, CA-based MobiTV, which at the time was called Idetic. The MobiTV service included a back-end architecture for delivering television to cell phones and access to a group of content partners willing to provide shows.

Today, MobiTV is one of the most successful mobile-TV services, with more than 500,000 individual subscribers paying $9.99 a month to mobile carriers (which, like cable providers, then divvy up the pie and pay MobiTV a percentage) for two- to three-minute video clips and live streams from dozens of broadcasters – including Fox Sports, MSNBC, the Discovery Channel, and the Weather Channel – along with new services such as Mobi-MLB, which offers live audio broadcasts of every major-league baseball game.

The problem for MobiTV is that it could easily be swept aside by San Diego’s Qualcomm, one of the largest makers of communication chips for cell phones. Qualcomm is currently developing both a proprietary system to deliver video to mobile phones and its own subsidiary content-aggregating service.

But as the heavyweights try to corner the mobile-TV market by simply repurposing highlights from news, entertainment, and sports programming, the best hope for innovative content may lie with companies like Sherman Oaks, CA’s GoTV. GoTV’s original programming, created with the smaller screen size of the mobile phone in mind, could be to mobile TV what the music video was to cable television in the 1980s: content perfectly tailored to the new medium. Whether it will be the small companies or the big companies that produce the most-popular mobile-TV content remains to be seen. What’s certain is that all content providers will spend a lot of their time seeking audiences with the carriers.

MobiTV on Cingular: www.mobitv.com
Sprint TV: www.sprintpcs.com
Verizon VCast: www.getvcast.com
GoTV: www.1ktv.com

Brad King is Technology Review’s Web producer and senior editor.

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