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Mobile TV Spreading in Europe and to the U.S.
Tuesday May 6, 2008 12:35 am ET
By KEVIN J. O’BRIEN

BERLIN — Every day in Switzerland, 40,000 people watch a 100-second television news broadcast on their cellphones. In Italy, a million people pay as much as 19 euros each ($29) a month to watch up to a dozen mobile TV channels.

Tiny TV, the kind that is watched on a cellphone, is spreading beyond Japan and South Korea, where it has been available for about three years. Mobile operators across Europe and the United States are investing in new broadcasting towers, mobile devices, and television programming and promotions, even though it is not yet clear that profit will follow.

On Sunday, AT&T Wireless, with 71.4 million phone customers, started AT&T Mobile TV in the United States. The 10-channel service, costing $15 a month, includes Pix, a channel with movies from Sony Pictures. AT&T will sell cellphones made by LG Electronics and Samsung that can receive the TV broadcasts.

Britain is auctioning wireless spectrum this month that could be used for mobile TV. France plans to award a license for a 13-channel mobile video service in June. In Germany, Mobile 3.0, an investor group led by a South African-based media company, Naspers, plans to start a video service this year.

These services join a handful of other mobile TV offerings like those in Switzerland and Italy, all beamed from special transmission towers to tiny receivers in the mobile phones.

Until the mobile broadcasting technology appeared three years ago, cellphone operators had to send video as prepackaged clips to individual customers over high-speed, third-generation phone networks. That proved costly to both operators and viewers, and the large video packets slowed other voice and data traffic on those networks. Direct mobile broadcasting does not tax the so-called 3G networks.

Japan is the leader in direct mobile television, with 20 million cellphones equipped with TV receivers, followed by South Korea with 8.2 million, according to In-Stat, a research and consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. In-Stat estimated that there were 29.7 million mobile TV viewers worldwide at the end of 2007. That is expected to almost double, to 56.9 million, at the end of 2008, driven by growth in Japan.

Italy has been an early leader in Europe, with service beginning in 2006. The largest mobile TV broadcaster on the Continent is 3 Italia, a cellular operator owned by Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong, with 800,000 customers, about 10 percent of its total phone clients. The million Italian viewers watch up to a dozen channels.

Swisscom offers a 20-channel viewing lineup, which costs 13 Swiss francs ($12.50) a month.

For some operators, mobile TV remains a niche service. In the United States, Verizon Wireless has offered mobile TV since March 2007, but In-Stat estimated that it had fewer than 100,000 paying viewers.

Robert Briel, publisher of Mobile Broadband News in Amsterdam, an online information service for mobile operators and equipment makers, said he was skeptical about the prospects for mobile TV. People prefer to watch television on larger screens and most adults do not have the time or the need to watch it on a phone, he said.

The European video broadcasts use a standard called DVB-H, short for Digital Video Broadcasting for Hand-helds, which was developed by the DVB Project, a group of 275 media , entertainment and telecommunications companies based in Geneva.

Last July, the European Commission recommended that nations in the European Union use the DVB-H standard for mobile video, but the recommendation was not binding. In the United States, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless use a rival technology called MediaFlo, which was developed by Qualcomm. Japan, South Korea and China use other standards.

All of these technologies let mobile network operators control television broadcasts by selling receiver-equipped cellphones and programming packages.

“It is fair to say that no single global standard has emerged as dominant yet,” said Lars Felber, product marketing manager at Elgato, a company in Munich that makes U.S.B.-stick TV receivers for Apple computers. “What appears to be emerging is a collection of different, complementary technologies.”

While it is unclear which standard will prevail, equipment makers like Telegent Systems, of Sunnyvale, Calif., produce chips for all the standards.

“This is really a phenomenon that is going to change viewing habits around the world,” said Weijie Yun, a founder and chief executive of Telegent.



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