What future for TV on the go?

As this is being written the FIFA World Cup was just getting underway, with 32 nations battling for what is unquestionably the most coveted prize in world sport. Some of the beneficiaries of this quadrennial event are obvious - the sponsors, the players and the host country for a start.

Less obvious are the rewards being garnered by Germany's mobile phone operators. With more than one million travelling fans expected during June and July, the number of roaming calls being made will represent a real financial bonanza for German operators. According to Informa Telecoms and Media the extra roaming revenue could exceed e53 million.

High hope

The World Cup is also likely to boost, at least in the short term, interest in mobile TV with fans anxious to keep abreast of their team's progress while they are out and about. Informa Telecoms & Media anticipates that $300 million of revenue will come from users accessing streaming and broadcast services at the World Cup.

However, absent a World Cup or similar global event, what are the real prospects of mobile television ever breaking through into the big time?

Judging by the high level of interest in the outcome of the multiple trials currently underway, operators seem convinced that mobile TV will be a big money-spinner.

But operators have been known to be wrong in the past, just think of WAP and MMS, which were also going to generate major revenues, but which oddly seem to have failed to attract the interest of the paying customers.

At the heart of this is a major dichotomy, operators have invested heavily in deploying advanced technology that is capable of delivering innovative services, but the customers resolutely stick to voice and simple text messaging, refusing to be tempted by flashy new services. The problem for operators is that they are in a cleft stick, they have to keep investing (next up is IMS) in the hope that the next new service will be the one that actually makes the breakthrough. This time it is the turn of mobile TV to carry the banner but is there any prospect that this will be the operators' get out of jail free card?

Well, probably not. Although it might seem cool at first to be the one watching television while at a bus stop, on a train or in the pub, it is very much a transitory feeling. The bottom line is that watching television on a small handheld device is not a particularly rewarding experience and is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Although the World Cup is touted as a booster for mobile TV, those making these claims tend to overlook the fact that the same event has also produced a huge demand for big screen, high-definition television sets that offer a genuinely exciting new viewing experience. By comparison watching a low bit-rate picture on a screen the size of a matchbox is likely to be a less than compelling experience.

There are undoubtedly some video and TV applications that will work on a mobile phone - news flashes being a good example. But there has to be considerable doubt that the market for mobile television will ever reach the size that the industry is confidently predicting. Add in the ongoing problems of competing technologies and lack of clarity about spectrum availability and it is hard to see mobile TV being the must-have application that the mobile industry is desperately seeking. So the search continues.