Mobile TV in Europe looks doomed

Being able to watch broadcast TV using a mobile phone was a keen objective for some, and a huge puzzlement to others.

The opportunity for new subscription and advertising revenue streams tempted operators and handset vendors to conduct trials and plan for greater things, while the Capex required to build a network to support the DVB-H transmissions was more than a worry for others.

What also remained unanswered was consumer interest--sure, they would use the service, but would they pay for TV content that was largely available free on conventional (and large-screen) TV sets?

The trap of 'build the network and they will subscribe' was conveniently forgotten by the advocates of deploying DVB-H networks costing €100's of millions.

But some European countries did make valiant attempts: Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland all launched DVB-H services over the past few years.

But these have all now been closed, or are scheduled to close. Significant hype surrounded the launch of DVB-H in France - but nothing actually appeared, while the UK operators conducted numerous trials, but have blamed lack of spectrum for their failure to bring a DVB-H service to commercial reality. 

Italy remains the only major European country that has a fully-fledged DVB-H network. It pioneered the technology in Europe and was reported to have attracted around one million customers over a three year period from 2005 to 2008. However, while it would seem willing to continue with the service, no recent information on user numbers has been released.

The other European networks were thought to have around 10,000--15,000 subscribers, with many being attracted by the promise of watching live football or based upon the marketing campaigns of European soccer championship events.

Some analysts believe that operators needed around 250,000 subscribers to make a reasonable ROI on a DVB-H network, a number that even such high profile sporting occasions as these seemingly failed to attract and then retain as a mobile TV subscriber community.

In an attempt to breathe life back into DVB-H, the Broadcast Mobile Convergence Forum gathered together interested parties late last year with the objective of developing low-cost mobile receivers to be available by this summer. Either this objective is running behind schedule, or the initiative failed to inspire real commitment.

With DVB-H seemingly destined to become a niche broadcast technology in Europe, Samsung has now decided to become involved and is pushing a rival platform.

The company has linked up with IP Wireless to promote Integrated Mobile Broadcast (IMB) as the way forward for cell phone operators. IMB has the advantage of being able to use the existing cellular network to provide a TV broadcast channel using about 125Kbps of spectrum for each connected subscriber. But this means that relatively few people per base station--perhaps 10 to 20--would be able to access the service due to network capacity constraints.

While IMB has the support of the GSMA as its preferred method for the delivery of broadcast services, little has been heard of the reported trials of the technology by T-Mobile and Orange in the UK.

Will Samsung's involvement with IMB perhaps trigger a fresh wave of enthusiasm for mobile TV--especially one that doesn't require huge operator Capex?

Albeit that IMB might help identify consumer demand for mobile TV in Europe, the business model for the service still seems some considerable distance from being proven. -Paul