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Communications

The Small Screen

Wireless phone companies, broadcast networks, and software makers are in a cautious, cutthroat dance to bring mobile TV to U.S. cell-phone users.

The cell phones began arriving in the first week of September. Slowly, people began finding reasons to stop by my office. They would come in, pick up whichever phone caught their attention, look at it, ask what it did (“It streams television”), hit a few buttons, and then leave.

Though mobile TV does, for the moment, suffer from technical limitations such as long buffering times and choppy streams, Sprint, Verizon, and Cingular have determined that the medium is now good enough to begin earning money for carriers. Most basic services – which offer channels such as ABC News or E! – cost roughly $10 to $15 per month, with pay-per-view clips sold for up to $4 and à la carte channels for upwards of $4 each.

And the carriers are right. Mobile TV is exciting. But for me, the daily thrill of playing around with phones that serve as teeny TVs began to fade just around the moment I crossed the threshold to my apartment after work. That’s because at home, I have absolute control over what I see and how I see it. I have a Hewlett-Packard Media Center PC, a buggy but powerful machine that, in addition to serving as an ordinary computer, utterly blurs the distinction between streaming Web video and broadcast television. It allows me to watch, record, and organize video content from any source – the Web, broadcast TV, or DVDs. And because I also use the Windows Media Center Extender, I can have all that content streamed directly to my television.

Simply put, mobile television is, for the moment, the exact opposite of that experience. While Comcast may own the pipeline into my home, it doesn’t control the information that goes through those pipes. With mobile television, the only way to get content on phones is through the gatekeepers. That means that Sprint, Verizon, and Cingular can potentially dictate what you see and how you see it.

The Plot Line
In mobile TV, the main players fall into three groups: the wireless phone companies, which control the network across which all data services – voice, Web access, and text messaging – run; the major broadcast networks and cable channels, which create television content; and the companies that develop technology – both hardware and software – to enable television streaming over networks originally designed for voice traffic. The companies in this last group increasingly hope to act as aggregators who take content from broadcast partners and resell it, along with their own products, to the wireless carriers.

Much like the cable industry, where everyone must bow down before big operators such as Time Warner and Comcast, the mobile-TV industry has its kings: the wireless phone companies. In the Boston area, ESPN can’t get on the television without striking a deal with Comcast, which controls the relationship with the viewer, the set-top box, and the cable lines that run into your house. Likewise, if ESPN wants sports highlights on a cell phone, it must make an agreement – either directly or through a third-party aggregator – with one of the big three mobile-television providers.

And the way the agreement works gives still more power to the wireless carriers. A broadcaster is not paid based on the number of minutes that customers spend watching its content; instead, it is paid a portion of the fee charged for whatever subscription package it is a part of.

As the medium grows, mobile-TV viewers will have multiple subscription options to choose from – much as there are tiered pricing options when you sign up for cable. The mobile providers can, by power of their pipe, determine who gets easiest access to users’ phones. In the world of cable, broadcasters jockey to make it into the expanded basic cable channel package, which gives them the best chance to attract the greatest number of viewers. This arrangement makes good financial sense for carriers and broadcasters, but it doesn’t best serve consumers.

Still, the carriers are not operating in a vacuum; broadcasters do have some power. ABC and Fox have been among the most aggressive in developing mobile content, with the hope that they can build enough viewer loyalty to allow them to strike better deals with the mobile providers.

In the cable world, companies like Disney or GE, which own many channels with large audiences, can cut cherry deals that give them high per-subscriber fees, because the cable companies know that without content that is in demand, they will lose revenue. It pays for Comcast to accommodate Disney, because Disney’s ESPN brings in subscribers. Meanwhile, small networks sometimes have to pay for placement on less-frequented tiers such as the on-demand services.

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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