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Startups Make the Case for Mobile TV

Spectrum spasm
Part of the plot twist relates to spectrum in the 700MHz band. The band is crowded with cable broadcasters that were given squatters rights by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) years ago. The FCC said TV stations were required to leave the band as part of a national transition to digital television -- either before 2006 or when 85 percent of households can receive digital TV signals, whichever came last.

A newer bill, the Digital Television Transition Bill, signed by President Bush in February 2006, says that the cable guys have to leave the band by February 2009. This should free up another 60 MHz or so of spectrum for wireless service providers. (The auction for that spectrum has yet to be scheduled.) Meanwhile, there is a separate standing rule that prohibits Qualcomm and HiWire from even operating in channels adjacent to those used by the cable guys. Both companies are lobbying the FCC to change that rule, which will open up more spectrum for mobile TV services, Wills says.

So the big question is: Can these mobile TV service providers persuade the large North American providers (other than Verizon Wireless) that separate networks for mobile broadcasts are necessary -- and that they would make money?

Verizon Wireless, the one U.S. carrier with definite mobile broadcast plans, has not yet said how its MediaFLO plans will fit into its current VCast video service offerings.

"The main disadvantages of dedicated Mobile TV broadcast networks are obvious: You need to deploy an entirely new radio broadcast network; and you need to integrate TV receiver chipsets into the mobile handset," writes Gabriel Brown, chief analyst at Unstrung Insider, in a recent report -- "Mobile TV: Switching on the Revenue Stream."

The minds behind HiWire hope that if they sign the programmers, the carriers will come. Both Wills and Bryan McGuirk, president of media solutions at SES Americom, have TV backgrounds. Wills worked for A&E Television Networks and Viacom Inc. (NYSE: VIA), helping, among other things, to launch Pay Per View and Showtime. McGuirk has spent the past 15 years in the programming sector, including a stint managing affiliate agreements for NBC, "which taught us a lot about the UHF spectrum," he says.

The Old School
Meanwhile, there are the companies that stream programming over the wireless carriers' CDMA and GSM-based networks. MobiTV, a veteran in the space, is hedging its bets by supporting both broadcast as well as unicast and multicast streaming technologies. Others insist they will not be usurped by the mobile broadcast networks.

One of these is ICEtv, an Arizona mobile TV service provider that will launch within 60 days, offering a variety of local, national, and international channels that deliver news, sports, weather, and entertainment, including porn. (The porn channels will come with security measures that prevent just anyone from enjoying them, officials say. See Mobile TV's XXX Factor.) ICEtv has teamed up with Ortiva Wireless Inc. , which specializes in optimization software for mobile content.

One element that may give the services a boost is that content distribution companies definitely care about the services. CBS president Les Moonves brought the subject up in the network's most recent earnings call.

"With every new distribution outlet comes a new way to generate revenues," Moonves said. "The Verizon V Cast deal, which lets V Cast subscribers view CBS content on their cell phones, will bring in some $3 million in incremental revenue through subscription dollars this year alone... That's genuine growth in what will be a real business for us going forward. And it all goes directly to the bottom line."

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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