Multicast vs. unicast--the new mobile TV battle ground

Multicast vs. unicast--the new mobile TV battle ground
When I first started covering mobile TV a few years ago, the big question was whether or not consumers would watch TV on their mobile handset. Today, that question has been answered--well, sort of. Telephia reports there were 6.2 million mobile TV subscribers in the U.S. at year-end 2006. This is a big-enough number to convince advertisers of mobile TV's potential, but not enough to persuade everyone (including some wireless operators) that mobile TV is more than niche play.  

What I found interesting at this week's MoTV conference (co-located with the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas) was that the debate over mobile TV is no longer about whether DVB-H or MediaFLO is better, it's about whether broadcast mobile TV is better than unicast TV--the TV service offered over the existing carrier wireless networks, such as 1xEV-DO or HSDPA.

Perhaps the debate has shifted because Qualcomm's MediaFLO subsidiary has two operator deals. MediaFLO, of course, launched VCAST TV with Verizon Wireless earlier this year and the company has announced it will launch a similar broadcast mobile TV service with AT&T later this year.

When I asked Scott Wills, president and COO of Hiwire, about the shift in the mobile TV battle, he said the unicast TV services are the bigger competitor to broadcast mobile TV because some operators think that unicast will meet consumer demand. MediaFLO, meanwhile, has become the biggest cheerleader for broadcast mobile TV, and Modeo and Hiwire both seem content to ride on MediaFLO's coat-tails.

Unicast TV services are currently meeting Sprint's mobile TV needs. When I spoke with John Burris, vice president of data at Sprint last month at CTIA, he said that the company is bullish on video content but that right now it can't justify a broadcast model based upon existing usage.

This is a big problem for companies such as Hiwire and Modeo, which have proposed DVB-H systems but have not yet secured a wireless operator partner. Both are scrambling to convince operators like Sprint that unicast systems don't offer a long-term solution because of limited capacity. And both firms are hopeful that trials and market research will help them prove their case. Wills is confident that wireless operators will soon see the light. The next six to twelve months will be very illuminating. -Sue