title for Mobile TV note
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section heading icon     overview

This page considers 'mobile television', in particular video content broadcast to mobile handsets.

It covers -

It supplements the discussion of publishing and networks.

The following page considers questions about business models, media spin, forecasts regarding adult mobile video and the shape of future mobile tv devices.

subsection heading icon     introduction

In principle it is possible to deliver video content to a range of wireless devices - including traditional television receivers, wireless laptops, wireless PDAs and mobile phones. Traditional demarcations between devices have blurred in recent years, with phones for example being marketed as PDAs, PDAs offering a wireless email capability and some consumers using wireless connectivity for access to the net while away from the office. Others have loaded video recordings from personal computers onto iPods or other devices for viewing while on public transport, waiting at airports, while with mates at the pub or in a university lecture.

In practice there is disagreement about standards for delivery of that content (should it be accessible on any device or only on particular formats?) and about markets.

Much of the literature - and most investment - centres on mobile television as "transmission of audiovisual content to a mobile device", a device such as a PDA or mobile phone handset that has a small screen (and is thus different to the large screen and larger memory found on a laptop).

Enthusiasts and anxious bureaucrats have characterised mobile tv as "the next wave", with the European Commission in 2007 for example claiming that the technology

has the potential to change profoundly the way in which consumers experience television and audiovisual services. It offers the possibility of viewing any content, any time, anywhere, and also provides for a new world of interactivity, where traditional and on-demand creative content consumption is supplemented by services tailored to the needs and tastes of each consumer. Mobile TV is at the crossroads of two powerful social trends, greater mobility and new forms of accessing media content. It therefore could become one of the next high-growth consumer technologies. By bringing together personal mobile communications, one of the most dynamic of European markets, and audiovisual content, Mobile TV is at the frontier of high-value, innovative services. Estimates indicate that by 2011 this could be a market between €7 billion and €20 billion, reaching between 200 million and 500 million customers worldwide.

Those expectations have been reflected in substantial investment by network operators and content providers, although as noted in the following page the results of that investment have been disappointing and some major organisations have withdrawn from the market.

Expectations have also been reflected in a range of forecasts by commercial soothsayers, including predictions that adult content will be the "main driver of third-generation (3G) mobile services demand" and that mobile video will be a US$22 billion market by 2010.

That enthusiasm is reminiscent of claims that broadband over powerline (BPL) or the internet fridge will inevitably gain substantial market share. It is challenged by the commercial difficulties facing some mobile tv service providers and by the underwhelming uptake of past miniature television receivers (such as the Walkman-style device marketed by Sony in the 1990s).

That has led some observers to argue that -

  • most people in fact do not want to watch much video on the little screen even if the content is available, consistent with research on accessibility
  • the most useful model for m-tv is mtv: short news and sports clips with an emphasis on audio or on close-ups of key action (such as a catch at an international cricket match) rather than on transmission of The Seventh Seal, Cries & Whispers or Gone With The Wind
  • the market for mobile tv erotica may centre on 'naughty' screensavers for the 'lads' market' rather than extended high-resolution performances

subsection heading icon     delivery

Mobile television delivery (ie transmission of audiovisual
content to the mobile device) can take different forms, including -

  • live content
  • time-shifted content
  • on-demand

Analysts have typically distinguished between broadcast ('one to many') and unicast ('one to one') mobile tv services that are downloaded to a device for subsequent viewing or that are watched as they are transmitted.

Given that the content is digital it can be delivered using 3G mobile (cellular) phone networks, by digital terrestrial broadcast systems or by satellite. It may be downloaded from the net for later display (and recurrent replay) on a PDA or similar device rather than a phone.

Traditional programmes - notably news and weather - are normally broadcast; unicasts include live video or 'time-shifted' (ie recorded) on demand transmissions that range from video podcasts to 'music video' clips and movies. Timeshifting may involve short clips from a network operator or its associate (eg music videos), a movie or television programme from a network operator's associate, or a multimedia message service (MMS) recording from one user of a network to that person's contacts.

The experience of viewing live or recorded video on a mobile phone screen is affected by user expectations, the nature of the content and the characteristics of the particular device.

Uptake by consumers has been inhibited by visibility and quality of service problems such as -

  • few movies for example were intended for viewing on a "one inch square screen", so that users miss some aspects (even if using a high resolution screen and a magnifying glass) and may experience problems with dark scenes, poor contrast or wrong colours
  • some television broadcasts do not fill the entire screen on particular phones
  • some images are highly pixellated, particularly if camera angles change or the characters move too quickly
  • the LCD on some phone screens darken while viewing of the content is underway (a common feature to conserve battery life), with users having to adjust the device's settings to ensure a continuously bright screen when viewing the movie
  • buffering problems (akin to those found in much online video) with the movie starting and stopping several times when the data stream cannot keep up or simply freezing and dropping out
  • poor battery life.

It has also been inhibited by the lack of much content, particularly content repackaged for mobile devices.

subsection heading icon     demand

There is contention about how many people in particular markets are engaging with mobile television (particularly on an ongoing and intensive basis) and whether the mobile tv population will grow. Some audience research challenges are discussed as part of a more detailed note elsewhere on this site.

As of 2007 the size of the mobile television population across the world remains low, because of factors such as -

  • network access costs
  • pricing of commercial content
  • availability of infrastructure (including handsets, servers and the wireless network)
  • quality of service problems (where for example the infrastructure is available but transmissions fall over)
  • user unhappiness with the viewing experience

In the US research firm Telephia claimed in 2006 that there were 3.7 million mobile television subscribers. Jupiter Research's Video on Cell Phones report from that year claimed that 25% of people would be interested in mobile television services but only 1% would be willing to pay for them.

That figure is consistent with studies in Europe and Australia where consumers have essentially indicated that mobile tv is "a nice idea" but not so nice that they would pay for the immediate access to content that can be viewed later without payment on free-to-air broadcast tv or on the net using a user-friendly monitor. As noted in the following page, Virgin Mobile abandoned its UK broadcast mobile TV service during 2007 after gaining under 20,000 subscribers. US infrastructure giant Crown Castle International similarly dumped Modeo, its mobile TV network, after lack of consumer and partner interest

Telephia's 2006 Mobile Video Diary Report claimed that 30% of its consumers reported watch mobile television between 12 pm and 4 pm; 31% watched between 4 pm and 8 pm. 22% of viewing happened while the consumers were at home, 22% while commuting (hopefully not while driving a car), 16% while shopping and 14% while at work.

What they were watching, why they were watching and whether they were recurrently watching is more problematical.

subsection heading icon     standards

The mobile television industry is bedevilled by hype from enthusiasts, disagreement about what devices consumers will use (discussed in more detail in the following page) and uncertainty about standards.

Unicasting has largely used existing mobile networks (2.5 or 3G/UMTS) to deliver content to mobile devices, in particular to mobile phones. There is more disagreement about mechanisms for broadcast mobile television, with competition between -

  • DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcast transmission to Handheld terminals), based on the DVB-T standard (used for non-mobile digital terrestrial television in the EU)
  • T-DMB (Terrestrial Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) based on T-DAB standards
  • MediaFLO (Media Forward Link Only)
  • DVB-SH (a hybrid satellite/terrestrial system)

Disagreement has led to delays in decisionmaking by regulators (understandably reluctant to enshrine a standard that is specific to the particular jurisdiction or an individual solutions provider, replaying past problems with terrestrial digital broadcast tv), content production and uptake by network operators or broadcasters.

subsection heading icon     regulation

Regulation varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, reflecting each nation's regime for -

  • management of spectrum (in particular licensing of uses for 3G bandwidth)
  • management of audiovisual broadcasting
  • consumer protection (eg subscription to 'premium services')
  • consumer use of networks (eg restrictions on making threats via a phone to another consumer)
  • broader 'content & carriage' restrictions (eg transmission of child pornography).

Commercial content providers have thus been fined by regulators for broadcasting offensive content in breach of censorship codes. There have been a succession of prosecutions in Australia and elsewhere of individuals who have made and shared unauthorised video or who have been found to have child porn on their phones or PDAs.

subsection heading icon     studies

A 2003 European Commission study on Mobile Entertainment in Europe: Current State of the Art (PDF) reflected disagreement about demand, pricing, regulatory frameworks and costs. There is a more upbeat view in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press 2006) by Henry Jenkins and Cell Phone Culture: Mobile Technology in Everyday Life (London: Routledge 2006) by Gerard Goggin.

For technical introductions see Converged Multimedia Networks (New York: Wiley 2006) by Juliet Bates, Chris Gallon, Matthew Bocci et al, Wireless Communications: The Future (New York: Wiley 2007) by William Webb and Streaming and Digital Media: Understanding the Business and Technology (New York: Focal Press 2007) by Dan Rayburn.

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version of July 2007
© Bruce Arnold
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