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Cable/Video

T-Mobile tries to disrupt pay-TV – starting at $10/month

T-Mobile has taken the wraps off a retooled, re-imagined (and delayed) version of TVision, a no-contract OTT-TV service that features a set of slimmed-down channel packages, plus a few à la carte options, starting at just $10 per month.

T-Mobile's new Internet-based pay-TV offering will launch November 1 and initially be exclusively available to T-Mobile's base of postpaid mobile customers. T-Mobile will hawk TVision at its retail stores, via its customer care service and through its digital channels (Tmobile.com and the My T-Mobile app).

The new TVision will boot up with support for a handful of streaming platforms, including T-Mobile's own Android TV-powered 'Hub,' a streaming dongle that's been optimized for the OTT-TV service.
The new TVision will boot up with support for a handful of streaming platforms, including T-Mobile's own Android TV-powered 'Hub,' a streaming dongle that's been optimized for the OTT-TV service.

Update: On today's T-Mobile "Uncarrier" event, Dow Draper, T-Mobile's EVP of emerging businesses, said TVision will be available to legacy Sprint customers later in November, and to T-Mobile's prepaid mobile customers as well as to non-T-Mobile customers sometime in 2021.

T-Mobile has yet to tee up any TVision offers tailored for its wireless Home Internet service. However, T-Mobile Home Internet customers with a postpaid wireless account can subscribe to TVision and stream it via the home Internet connection.

Update: Speaking at today's Uncarrier event, CEO Mike Sievert hinted that T-Mobile will make an effort to pair TVision to home broadband as T-Mobile pushes ahead with plans to launch a 5G-powered version of its home Internet platform.

The new TVision is booting up with three tiers:

  • TVision Vibe: Starting at $10 per month, this low-end tier features 30-plus channels, with a focus on general entertainment content. Networks on the tier include AMC, Animal Planet, BBC America, Comedy Central, Discovery, Food Network, Hallmark Channel, MTV, HGTV, Nick, Own, Paramount Network, Travel Channel and VH1, among others.

    "It's cheaper than some à la carte streaming apps, so we think that's a great value for those that don't want sports and news," said T-Mobile VP of Entertainment Dwayne Benefield, a pay-TV vet who previously headed up PlayStation Vue, the Sony-owned OTT-TV service that was shut down in January.

  • TVision Live: Tacking on sports and news from programmers such as NBC, ESPN, Fox and Turner, TVision Live starts at $40 per month. For an additional $10 per month, TVision Live+ adds more sports channels, including NFL Network and Longhorn Network. TVision Live Zone adds NFL RedZone channel and others for a total of $60 per month. To help prime the pump, T-Mobile is also throwing in a year of Apple TV+ (Apple's new subscription VoD service) to new TVision Live+ and TVision Zone customers.

    Update: Benefield estimates that, at launch, TVision Live customers will have access to their local NBC affiliate and either the local ABC and/or Fox affiliates, or the national feeds from ABC and Fox.

  • TVision also features an à la carte "Channels" service that is starting access to a multiplex of live channels and VoD libraries from three premium services – Starz, Showtime and Epix. The obvious absentee here is HBOMax, WarnerMedia's new supersized SVoD service.

    There's "a lot more on the way" for TVision Channels, Sievert said.

TVision is also outfitted with a cloud DVR – 100 hours of storage is included for no added charge to TVision Live, and costs an extra $5 per month for TVision Vibe and TVision Channels customers. TVision Vibe subs can access up to two concurrent streams, compared with three concurrent streams for TVision Live and Channels.

All of the TVision packages and Channels content will be woven into a uniform application. "We look to build on that platform so users can really build a unified experience all within one app," Benefield said.

Android TV 'Hub' optimized for TVision

The new TVision will launch on an Android TV-based dongle from T-Mobile that sells for $50, along with support for a handful of other streaming platforms/devices: iOS and Android smartphones and tablets; retail Android TV streamers and connected TVs, Amazon Fire TV devices and Apple TV boxes.

Update: T-Mobile is giving new TVision subs the option to pick up a 4K-capable Apple TV streamer for a rebated price of $99 ($80 off the regular price) if they sign up by December 31.

TVision aims to be device-agnostic, but notably absent at launch is support for Roku players and Roku TVs, popular gaming consoles such as various Xbox models and Sony's PlayStation 4, as well as smart TVs from major suppliers such as Samsung and LG Electronics.

TVision will support a handful of mobile and TV-connected streaming platforms out of the chute.
TVision will support a handful of mobile and TV-connected streaming platforms out of the chute.

Benefield said T-Mobile is in discussions to expand TVision to more platforms.

T-Mobile's 4K-capable TVision Hub is underpinned by the Android TV Operator Tier, which allows for service provider tailoring not found in retail Android TV devices. For example, the TVision Hub will boot up to the service provider's pay-TV app while also providing access to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other apps available at Google Play without having to change HDMI inputs. The operator-focused integration also ensures that searches for movies and TV shows will prioritize TVision results but also list out and present how titles can be accessed by other apps (such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu) that are installed on T-Mobile's Hub streamer.

Cloud-to-cloud integration with Google

The TVision Hub supports voice-powered search and navigation as well as Google Assistant technology that allows users to control other supported IoT devices on the home network. TVision also provides a standard grid guide.

"We have done a cloud-to-cloud integration with Google so we can tie the two services really well together," said Mike Earle, director of emerging video products at T-Mobile.

The remote has a few more buttons (including an 0-9 keypad) than those found on remotes for many other streaming devices. But T-Mobile thought it was important to keep a keypad for things like PIN entries and for customers who want to enter channel numbers directly, Earle explained.

The TVision Hub and the TVision service aren't mutually exclusive – a consumer doesn't need the TVision service to make use of the Hub, or necessarily need the Hub to get the TVision streaming service.

"We've built them so they can stand on their own. But when they are together, we've done a lot of work to integrate and bring it all back into one spot," Earle said.

Joining a crowded field

T-Mobile's new service enters a crowded market of virtual multichannel video programming distributors (vMVPDs) that include YouTube TV, Hulu, Dish-owned Sling TV, fuboTV, AT&T TV Now, Philo and Vidgo, an OTT-TV service focused on the prepaid market.

From a pricing and packaging standpoint, Philo, an OTT-TV service provider focused on general entertainment content, appears to be the closest competitor to TVision Vibe. Philo's entry-level service offers 60-plus channels and a cloud DVR with unlimited storage, while Vibe starts at $10 for 30-plus channels, but charges an extra $5 per month for a cloud DVR with just 100 hours of storage.

And the new TVision is also entering the fray amid an ongoing decline of the US pay-TV market. US service providers lost an estimated 1.55 million subs in Q2 2020 alone. Those losses mounted despite the presence of vMVPD services that, by the way, have been forced to jack up pricing as their lineups become more bloated.

Benefield, who has seen this trend take shape first hand during his days running PlayStation Vue, believes that TVision's packaging approach – designed to avoid "exploding offers" that rise in price over time – will resonate with consumers seeking less expensive options that still provide programming value.

"I'm excited [about TVision] because it's a way to break up the bundle in a way that makes sense," he said, noting that almost 80 million US consumers still pay for traditional pay-TV. "They're tired of paying for channels they don't watch … We're coming in with a value-prop that is unmatched."

Former Layer3 TV subs still being served

The new TVision launches almost three years after T-Mobile shelled out more than $325 million for Layer3 TV, a Denver-based IPTV service that focused on large channel packages delivered on more traditional-looking set-top boxes.

The current form of that service, called TVision Home, starts at a lofty $90 per month, integrates a few OTT services (Netflix, Xumo and CuriosityStream among them), and is limited to a handful of US cities (Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; Los Angeles; New York City; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Washington, DC; and Longmont, Colorado).

Benefield said T-Mobile will continue to support TVision Home's customer base, but will seek ways to convert them to the new offering. "We think they'll be motivated and happy to enjoy the enhanced features and functionality," he said.

It's not clear how many TVision Home customers are still hanging around. T-Mobile inherited about 5,000 Layer3 TV subs when it acquired the company in 2017 and has not promoted the service very heavily since as it pushed ahead with its retooled offering.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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