Optical/IP Networks

CTIA: We Want Our MobileTV

LOST ANGELES -- CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment 2006 -- Ask a dozen folks how delivering IPTV over mobile devices is going to work, and you will get a dozen answers.

At least that's the impression left behind here, where so-called mobile TV was perhaps top of the list of buzz and bottom of the list of reality.

One company -- MobiTV Inc. -- at least had something to point to. MobiTV, which already works with several mobile phone providers and boasts an impressive $70 million recent round of financing, announced Tuesday that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) will use its technology to bring the MobiTV video platform to the broadband world. Consumers will pay $19.99 a month for the product. (See MobiTV Raises $70M.)

That deal was enough to turn Phillip Alvelda, CEO of MobiTV, into an ecstatic bundle of energy when sitting for a interview with Light Reading Tuesday morning. "This is a huge deal for us," said Alvelda, who says the company, which has more than 200 employees, is "hiring like mad."

But AT&T is, after all, a broadband deal. Back to the mobile world: A series of panel discussions on the mobile TV topic later that afternoon cast a more skeptical light on the topic, as service providers and content providers alike bickered on the nuances of the business. One big question, for example -- how does everybody get paid?

Here are some other questions on mobile video content:
  • What exactly do consumers want for mobile video services? Do they want short clips or all of the shows they watch on regular TV -- or both? Neither service providers nor content providers seem sure.
  • How will the service providers and content providers negotiate complex licensing scenarios for mobile devices -- for example with sports, which are sometimes even licensed by geography?
  • Who gets paid? How much? How is the revenue shared among service providers and content providers?
  • Will the service providers share their user data with the content providers?
  • How much advertising will the consumer tolerate?
  • Would ad revenues be split between the content provider and the service provider?

On an afternoon panel on mobile TV, some of these questions resulted in downright sniping, especially when it came to the money or sharing of user data.

"There has to be an economic incentive to the programmers," said Salil Dalvi, VP of wireless with NBC Universal . "We need partnerships -- and what I mean by a partnership with the carriers is, right now we don't get any data about how our content is used. How are we supposed to be creative when we don't have any common tools?"

Despite such nagging questions, several service provider bigwigs indicated a clear interest in serving up mobile TV, saying the issues will sort themselves out.

"All of the initial indications are that people are pretty ravenous about being connected to TV," said Robert Hyatt, executive director with Cingular Wireless .

"I think all the enablers are in place," said Jim Straight, vice president of wireless Internet and multimedia services for Verizon Wireless . "Most of us don't jump up and say, 'Let's do video!' There are always interoperability issues, but I think there aren't many limitations in technology, other than interoperability and standards."

The content guys, however, still don't seem too sure about the technology and whether it's mature enough to give the user a quality experience.

"By the way, if you don't have coverage, your TV breaks down," pointed out NBC Universal's Dalvi. Yet others pointed to the content licensing issue, which will be difficult to solve in the mobile world. "Sports is the biggest challenge because of all the deals they have and all the local rights," said Gina Lombardi, president of MediaFLO, a business unit Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) that is building a standalone mobile multicast video network.

The frustrations of limited sports content on mobile devices were brought to light by a South American gentleman in the audience who stood up to point out, "I had to go from bar to bar finding a way to watch the World Cup!"

'Xactly, mate.

So where does mobile TV stand today? There are limited efforts under way, all different in nature. Three of the biggest examples are V Cast, Verizon Wireless's proprietary product that supplies a limited amount of content in smallish video clips; MediaFLO's standalone parallel network; and third-party integrators that also provide content, such as MobiTV or GoTV Networks .

Adam Guy, managing director of wireless at market consultancy Compete Inc. , says it's yet unclear which model will win, or when mobile TV will become a mass market. Guy says the carriers are moving slowly with mobile TV because they're still not certain whether they have the bandwidth in the network to provide it on the mass scale.

"There's a lot of pressure on carrier networks," says Guy. "You can't just go out and sell it if it will compromise your voice network."

The same issue, for now, is also resulting in some of the tension between the content providers and the service providers as they argue over how the revenue will be split on new video services.

"It's a classic value chain issue," says Guy. "The carriers have built expensive networks and they need to pay for them."

— R. Scott Raynovich, Editor in Chief, Light Reading

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