Don't get me started. When news hit last week that a consortium of broadcasters planned to equip 20 major markets to service mobile digital TV, commentators reiterated that old dream of "TV in your hand." The Mobile Content Venture claims it will cover almost 40% of the U.S. population with free-to-consumer digital channels to their phones by the end of 2011. As someone who has tested and covered the jagged, mostly unsuccessful roll-out of live mobile TV service for several years, who has had this capability on a number of review phones I have covered around for months at a time, all I can say is -- good luck with that.
Well, there I go. You got me started. This is going to be a two-day rant. Today, why you shouldn't hold your breath for this one.
My colleague Wayne Freidman covered the plan last week, so I won't belabor the details.
Bottom line is that major markets will have their live local TV signal broadcast to compatible handsets. Wireless spectrum has been dedicated to this effort and it will not use the 3G/4G wireless networks that currently drive carrier content. Instead, these signals will run parallel and come to the handset via a dedicated ATSC Digital tuner in the phone. One research firm the group quotes project 30 million such handsets in market by 2014.
Before we even get to the use cases surrounding mobile TV, there are a number of sheer business hurdles to overcome. Foremost, how do you get the hardware OEMs and carriers on board a scheme that potentially takes user attention and potential revenue away from their core businesses of voice and data? If free mobile TV is going to be driven by advertising and the mobile phone platform will be its transportation device, then carriers will need a sizable cut of this. For the last few years the smart phone and app phenomenon that Apple helped initiate has eroded carrier influence and re-routed the business models away from these operators. But Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile at least were selling the handsets and the data plans. The carrier still could sell the data plans and had a vested interest in broadening use. The early failed attempt at mobile TV from Qualcomm's FloTV project worked on a subscription plan that promised to $15 or so a month to a user's bill, but carriers were abysmal at (or uninterested in) merchandising the service.
Ultimately carriers and handset OEMs work together to create hardware and business models that satisfy both. Aside from a passing mention of working with "various OEMs and device manufacturers to ensure these devices are available in the second half of 2011," no specific hardware manufacturer or carrier was quoted in the press release supporting the effort. Damn straight they didn't. Because someone at both links in the service chain will have to do the math on this one. They will need to figure out what returns the carriers and OEMs get from a scheme that is supposed to gush ad dollars to someone and redirect mobile users perhaps from the voice and data cash cows both segments of the mobile economy spent years creating.
This DTV mobile project has been in the process of becoming for years, and it has been marked by delays from the start. To be fair, the sign-on of major broadcasters in the MCV group is more encouraging. From Gannett to Hearst, NBC to Cox, Fox and NBC, there is some weight behind this. But there are some notable absences here as well. Such consortiums of major providers were also supposed to give us all WiMax everywhere by now, let alone similar co-ops that have been assigned to creating standards for digital tablet magazines and even seamless control of DVRs from handsets. And more to the point, these updated handsets have to work their way into a mobile hardware ecosystem that runs on 18-month to two year cycles. Currently many people are signing new contracts with carriers and updating to smart phones. DTV likely has to wait for another cycle, and even then has to make a case for live TV to consumers let alone OEMs and carriers.
And then there is the actual use case for mobile live TV and the difference between having the service and actually using it. But let's take that one up tomorrow.