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Coming to a Screen near You: Innovation Set to Bring Mobile TV to Europe

Wed, 02/25/2009 - 10:46am
In order to market Mobile TV and Mobile Video successfully, service providers and technology companies need to target the specific entertainment needs people have when away from home, rather than just assuming that the populace will be willing to sign up regardless.

By Mike Green, European Correspondent Wireless Design & Development

The DVB-H infrastructure needed to support video transmission has been in place in Europe for over three years now (it was first showcased to the public at the Winter Olympics in Turin, in February 2006, with crowds being able to tap into the video broadcasts of all the different events taking place). However, so far Mobile TV has had only restricted allure, and subscribers on the continent almost seem rare enough to qualify for the World Wildlife Fund endangered species list.

There are likely to be several major reasons why it has not had anything like the same market penetration in the EMEA region as already witnessed in countries like
Jakub Hrabovsky, media relations manager for Vodafone.
Japan and Korea, but it is at least partially down to cultural differences. Residents of cities such as Seoul, Yokohama, or Tokyo are almost certain to spend more time away from home (working longer hours and having greater commuting times to deal with), so the benefits of being able to view programmes remotely are clearer.

"It is very hard to make predictions about what this next year will hold for Mobile TV," says Jakub Hrabovsky, Media Relations Manager for Vodafone, Europe's leading mobile operator. "At this stage it is still a nascent service. However, we are already seeing plenty of customers enjoying the variety of channels on offer, with live news and sports being amongst the most popular. So far, Mobile TV has been successful for us predominantly because the service can deliver the sort of content our clients want. It's a great boredom buster offering customers almost everything they get on their TVs at home. Whether on a train commuting to work or on a lunch break, they can enjoy sports highlights, news or their favorite programmes and stay in touch with what's going on while on the move. Delivering the right content will be key to more widespread proliferation of this new media." However, just like every other operator I have spoken to on the subject in the last year, though Vodaphone seems keen to lament about the possibilities of Mobile TV, it is far more cagey when it comes to discussing how big a proportion of its customer base has taken up these services to date. Neither it, nor any of its competitors will give any real details, but I have heard (off the record) from several sources that we are talking about single figure percentages for all of them. This all suggests that, despite expectations, it is not going to be the long-awaited saviour of the mobile business here in Europe.

It may sound all ‘doom and gloom', but regardless of this, Mike Short, VP of Research & Development at O2, the UK's second largest mobile operator, sees reasons to be optimistic. It is his view that, "Despite the current economic turbulence, use of mobile data services continues to grow with increasing numbers of subscribers using their handsets to access the Internet and send email. SMS messaging figures have gone up by 30% in the last 12 months, and though person-to-person communication is probably not going to rise too much in 2009, there are new opportunities opening up in machine-to-machine communication."

Figure 2. Provision’s technology allows multi-channel sports transmissions via PDA.
"There are likely to be new revenue streams outside the traditional consumer space, and O2 is already collaborating on a number of projects of this kind. Countries like Sweden and Italy have seen the benefits that GPRS can bring to metering in terms of real-time measurement, and this technology offers similar advantages to the healthcare arena for remote patient monitoring," Short explains, "what is more, there could be ways for the public sector to utilise it too, such as in education — where e-books could be brought into the mobile environment, or users would be able (via HSDPA technology) to transmit presentations from their handsets onto projector systems."

"Wireless is now in a strong position to replace wire-line in many cases. More and more consumers are likely to switch over in the next year, since, on top of competitive pricing, mobile handsets provide the user with the ability to store things like contact information and give them access to voicemail, Short adds, "so there is room for growth, and for innovation."

When asked about Mobile TV, Short gave a candid response, stating: "For the moment, it is likely that Mobile TV will only have a limited appeal, but Mobile Video has far greater potential, with subscribers downloading material from sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Flickr." In his opinion, "DVB-H still has some regulatory issues to contend with, such as lack of consistency for spectrum allocation. This means that the market is fragmented, and economies of scale can't be realised." "Tapping into live broadcasts is therefore not likely to prove as popular as on-demand clips," he concludes.

Nevertheless, some firms see ways to make live video a compelling prospect right now. Start-up ProVision (headquartered in South West England) has developed DSP-based MPEG-4/H.264 encoding/decoding modules that allow for the real-time wireless transmission of multi-cast HD video from a camera onto a PDA or smartphone. The encoded video signal is transmitted and received through an integrated IEEE 802.11b/g WLAN modem that incorporates antenna diversity. The software platform is able to run on either the
Figure 3. The USB key DTT decoder device from DiBcom.
Windows Mobile 5 or 6 operating systems. The company has already demonstrated (via collaboration with British Telecom, and Inmarsat) how this technology can be used by spectators at sporting events, selecting different information or video channels (covering a variety of camera angles). The technology would allow fans to see what was happening in the pit lanes at motor sport events, review a striker's recent goal scoring record, or replay certain parts of a match in order to see if a controversial decision made by the referee/judge had been correct or not. ProVision is currently looking to partner with a major sporting body, such as the English Premier League or the International Rugby Board.

Across the water in France, fab-less semiconductor company DiBcom has just announced the introduction of the first USB key-sized Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) decoder. Developed in collaboration, Canal+ (one of Europe's biggest television networks) will enable the reception of both standard and HD programmes through portable electronic devices such as laptops or PVRs. To succeed in this endeavour, the company had to find a way of integrating the high performance double receiver required into an extremely limited area, while at the same time complying with the power consumption restrictions of the USB interface. Much like ProVision's efforts, this could prove to be a way to make serious traction in Mobile TV, and by tying themselves in with a large broadcasting corporation the technology is backed up by high quality content (allowing subscribers to simply add this as a roaming feature to their existing paid TV contract).

In conclusion, I think that as long as technology firms and service providers are not passive about this, and try hard enough to make Mobile TV and Mobile Video desirable, then they will find a market for it, and will reap the rewards accordingly. They have to really target the specific entertainment needs people have when away from home, rather than just assuming that the populace will be willing to sign up regardless. What is more, they must come up with business models that allow them to draw reasonable revenue, but do not financially exclude too big a proportion of mobile subscribers. If they succeed in doing this, it seems likely to be embraced by mainstream consumers in the next few years. Stay tuned folks!

Mike Green can be reached at mikegreen3@hotmail.co.uk; 011-07917-435097.

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