Fuzzy Reception for Mobile TV

Mobile TV viewing remains low in Europe and the U.S., but the rollout of mobile broadcast networks could boost usage.

Only 1 percent of mobile phone users across France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. watched a video clip or commercial TV program on their mobile phone at least once in a month, according to M:Metrics Inc. 's most recent data for the three month period ending in August.

In the U.S., just 1.4 percent of mobile phone users say they view video clips or TV programs at least once per month, according to M:Metrics.

M:Metrics finds that the most popular mobile video content is user-generated videos sent by friends or family. In Europe, 4.2 percent of mobile users say they have watched this kind of video at least once per month, while 3.2 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers say they have watched these videos.

Early indications of users' experiences with these services is not terribly encouraging. According to a study conducted by the Mobile Entertainment Forum and LCC International Inc. , only 26 percent of mobile entertainment users are satisfied with their service. (See MEF Tackles Users and MEM Sizzles on the Riviera.)

Statistics from mobile operators themselves about their mobile TV services are hard to come by. Operators do not readily share much information how many mobile TV subscribers they have or how much revenue they make from content services.

Even though the usage numbers are low, some analysts predict that mobile TV will catch on. ABI Research forecasts that by 2010 there will be 181 million mobile TV users worldwide. The Asia/Pacific region will continue to lead in terms of take up and will have 106 million mobile TV users in 2010, followed by Europe with 48 million users and North America with 17 million users, according to ABI.

Juniper Research Ltd. estimates that consumers will spend more than $6.6 billion on mobile broadcast TV services worldwide by 2012. The firm predicts that nearly 120 million mobile users will receive mobile broadcast services by 2012 and DVB-H (digital video broadcast-handheld) will be the dominant standard.

Those who actually watch mobile video are increasingly watching for longer periods of time, according to Michael Wolf, research director at ABI Research. "Consumers are sitting down to watch longer and longer shows."

Wolf says that mobile content aggregator MobiTV finds that year-on-year the average viewing time for its programs has increased. "Two years ago, the average viewing time was 5 to 7 minutes; last year it was 15 minutes; and this year the average program viewing time is 32 minutes."

Most mobile video is delivered via unicast or multicast techniques which stream content over 3G networks. One of the key benefits of using the 3G cellular for mobile video services is that any 3G handset can receive them.

But the drawback is that these services have tight capacity limits, which can degrade the quality of the video. One way around the capacity bottleneck is to compliment unicast services with broadcast services. And this is just starting to happen as mobile broadcast networks are rolling out in Europe and in the U.S., using the DVB-H and MediaFLO standards, respectively.

"The ideal service mix is the ability to offer the most common channels over broadcast and special channels over unicast, but integrated into the same program guide," says Jon Hambidge, vice president of marketing at IPWireless Inc. , which promotes the TDtv standard that runs over 3G operators' unpaired time division duplex (TDD) spectrum. (See IPWireless Opens Center and NextWave Buys IPWireless.)

In Europe, mobile broadcast DVB-H networks are just starting to be rolled out. 3 Italia has operated a DVB-H network for more than a year and had sold 720,000 mobile TV handsets as of the end of August. (See EC Backs DVB-H and Reding Riles Mobile TV Players.)

There is also a DVB-H network in Finland operated by Digita, which uses a mobile TV platform from Nokia Networks . (See Digita Uses Nokia.) In Switzerland and Germany, the regulators have just awarded DVB-H licenses and both countries are aiming for commercial services in time for the Euro 2008 football championship. (See Swiss Mobile TV Kicks Off, Mobile Operators Unite in TV License Bid, and Mobile TV Bid Blues.)

In the U.S., Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)'s MediaFLO is the main mobile broadcast standard and will reportedly have almost 300,000 subscribers by the end of this year through AT&T and Verizon. (See AT&T Picks MediaFlo.)

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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