Time to tune in to transportable TV?

24 Aug 2004

Whoever said TV was a passive medium reckoned without mobile phones and text messages. From Big Brother to Football Focus, an ever growing number of TV shows now include an on-screen panel that invite viewers’ thoughts on the issues of the day. Mobile owners are actively encouraged to send in messages or vote on a range of programmes, finally making the medium what many people have been predicting for years – truly interactive.

The trend is also working in reverse. As mobile phone screens continue to grow in size and resolution, having gained colour along the way, the stage is set for TV programmes to be viewed on a handset, something that would have been inconceivable a few short years ago.

Consumers are becoming more accustomed to watching images on their handsets thanks to the takeup of camera phones and devices such as Nokia’s N-Gage QD, which is a phone that doubles as a videogame player. PDAs, many of which now come with wireless capability, are also increasingly being supplied with media player software.

“Imagine someone sitting on the DART, watching the news on their way home; able to order and view it over their phone. That is in the future, but it’s very near,” says Shane Leahy, managing director with Opera Telecom Ireland, a provider of SMS premium services. The company, which is headquartered in the UK, has been striking deals with a range of content owners as diverse as record labels and TV production companies.

There will of course be a price premium for viewing this content, initially at least; Leahy points out that ringtones started out being much more expensive than they are now. The price point for a four-minute video clip is likely to be in the €4-€6 bracket.

However, three key challenges await true availability of mobile TV, according to Gavin Henrick, managing director of Opera Telecom Technology. The Dublin-based company was formerly known as Aria Mobile Telecom and builds mobile platforms and infrastructure. The first and most obvious of these challenges lies with the mobile device itself, where compatibility, availability and price issues need to be resolved, says Henrick.

The next hurdle is content – the question remains, will consumers favour discrete video clips or streamed programmes? In tandem with this, the format in which the content is viewed will be crucial. Whereas content on the internet can generally be found in Quicktime, RealPlayer or Windows Media versions, there is a welter of different player applications – at least double the previous number – all vying for a slice of the mobile market. Some are supplied with phones but others aren’t.

What’s more, some content owners have tied themselves to deals with the developers of a particular player, such as Universal’s agreement with VICS. This raises the spectre of incompatibility: having phones or player software that can’t play content from a certain source because it can only be played by one version.

It doesn’t take a focus group to tell you that no consumer is likely to want to buy an integrated mobile/TV product if he or she can’t use it to view whatever kind of content they like. Interestingly, a mobile TV trial that recently started in Norway uses a different standard that doesn’t require users to download media player software to their phones, nor is it tied to a particular network.

Phone networks, Henrick adds, hold the final piece of the jigsaw, as stability will be critical in offering a compelling service. The availability of the third-generation mobile network, 3G, is currently limited which means that the user’s connection may switch to the slower GPRS infrastructure where the original signal is weak. This has implications for the quality of service. “When all these three factors are brought into line [content, standards and network quality], then you can regard that as the beginning of mobile TV,” Henrick concludes.

One UK production house is already actively looking at delivering video onto mobile phones. Mersey TV, the company behind the Hollyoaks soap opera, has a broadband version of the show available for download from the internet and Henrick says that its efforts will carry over into the mobile space. Larger broadcasters will need to sit up and take notice. “It’s people like Mersey TV who are going to drive it and the bigger players will follow,” he predicts.

However, it may not be plain sailing: digital rights management (DRM) will loom large in the future as the large content owners seek to limit the use of video footage to minimise the chances of piracy. Incidentally, these content owners are the large record labels and movie studios that are often increasingly one and the same entity: Sony, to pick a prominent example, has its own record label, it also recently acquired music rival BMG and on top of that runs Columbia Pictures. The side agitating for strong DRM is likely to be composed of a very small group of very large companies.

Henrick suggests that DRM could take the form of technology that locks content onto a phone once it has been downloaded; this would stop users from forwarding video clips for free to their friends. DRM software could also allow consumers to preview content before buying without actually receiving it in a form that could be seen later without paying.

Stung by the experience of the music business during the growth of MP3 usage, content owners are anxious to see that they can charge consumers for every use of whatever footage they make available for mobiles.

Pitted against that is a consumer tradition, built up over more than 20 years of videotapes and more recently DVDs, where people can buy a film, own it and do what they want with it afterwards – watching repeatedly or lending it to friends if they so wish.

The kind of stringent DRM being demanded by large content owners would seem to be incompatible with this concept, which has the benefit of years of experience and customer habit working in its favour.

Maybe, Henrick adds, the answer lies in a DRM that would allow one-time streaming of content for a certain price, with users paying a premium for a video that would be theirs to own permanently. There will need to be content people want to watch and it must also be at a price they are prepared to pay, Henrick warns. “Don’t forget: Wap was too expensive so no-one used it.”

By Gordon Smith