FEATURE: Mobile TV: What viewers want, what standards we need, and more

What could be more powerful than merging the two most popular consumer electronic devices of all time?

As the TV and the mobile phone come together in one device, technologists and wireless industry watchers predict we'll see a wealth of new opportunities for the key players in the wireless value chain and the TV business. We'll also see compelling new applications that will impact how users rely on and value their mobile services, and provide operators with a way to generate more revenue and reduce subscriber churn.

You know the history…

Mobile TV is rolling out in different ways around the globe. It first appeared as streaming media-based TV services over 2.5G and 3G networks. While these early roll-outs are clearly demonstrating the potential of mobile TV, they're not creating strong consumer demand for the technology. The mobile TV services that Americans are viewing today are streamed over cellular networks at one to 15 frames per second-resolutions four times lower than what is on the horizon. The result is a fast slideshow with full audio that is comparable to streaming video over the Internet. Everyone understands that improvements are needed in the quality of the video stream and also in terms of how the content is packaged for consumers.

Viewers want "TV snacks"

But it's awe-inspiring to think of the creativity harnessed in entertainment capitals around the world as content providers and networks are developing new programming for the mobile space and reformatting content they already have--expanding their market just like they are doing today with podcasting.

The new model does not expect consumers to watch hours and hours of programming on their mobile phone, but rather five to 15 minutes of quick news, sporting events or entertainment. Viewers will tune in for short "TV snacks" throughout the day, perhaps while on a break from work, waiting in line at a store, when traveling or commuting to work. What's even more sought after is that this format will deliver interactive TV programming, allowing subscribers to purchase products and surf Web sites directly connected to their favorite TV shows with a click on a link.

But we need standards…

To make this a reality, semiconductor, handset and infrastructure providers around the globe that are placing great emphasis on open standards. These would enable small and large semiconductor companies, handset manufacturers, broadcasters and service providers to address the market on a more even playing field. This would deliver stronger competition, lower consumer prices and faster service deployment. The world-wide popularity of ETSI's GSM standard is a perfect example of what an open standard can do to enable new consumer markets.

DVB-H, ISDB-T and DMB are examples of open mobile broadcast TV standards. Each of these open standards is at different stages of deployment around the world. But on a worldwide scale, DVB-H has the potential to be the prevailing standard in both the European and North American markets.  

DVB-H is a handheld version of the digital TV terrestrial broadcast standard in Europe, DVB-T. The difference is DVB-H is optimized to meet the battery-life requirements of mobile devices. By using both advanced video and audio compression and coding standards as well as advanced modulation technologies like OFDM, DVB-H enables a considerable reduction in the bandwidth required for mobile TV. This makes DVB-H the most cost effective means to provide multiple channels of video to mobile phones.

Real facts and figures

Trial results and market research studies indicate that a significant percentage of consumers are interested in purchasing a mobile TV service for between $10 and $20 monthly. A study by IPDC Forum/HPI Research, DigiTAG found that 60 percent of consumers were interested in mobile TV. Another DigiTAG study estimated that the U.S. marketplace for mobile TV services would grow to $60 billion annually.

In Korea, more than 100,000 people signed up for mobile TV less than three months after launch. It's expected that Korea's broadcast service will attract 600,000 to 700,000 consumers by year's end with a monthly subscription fee of $13. While Korea is the only country to have commercial mobile broadcast TV services up and running, trials are underway in various locales including several cities in Europe, Japan, the U.S., and, more recently, Australia.

In fact, results from a DVB-H trial in Helsinki that were released in late August show great promise for mobile TV services. Half of the 500 people in the pilot said that they were willing to pay €10 (almost $13) per month for mobile TV service. Users spent approximately 20 minutes a day watching mobile TV, although more active users watched between 30 to 40 minutes per session. And while most users watched programming during their commute to work, to relax or to catch up on the latest news, the trial also found that mobile TV complemented their main TV watching in their homes.

All of the right elements are rapidly being put in place for mobile broadcast TV to take off. Mobile TV certainly has potential to be the Next Big Thing, and whether or not DVB-H becomes a household name, this standard and other open approaches are what is required to take high-quality and affordable mobile TV services to the masses.

Gilles Delfassy is Senior Vice President, General Manager, Wireless Terminals Business Unit, Texas Instruments.