Mobile TV – literally TV on mobile phones, not to be confused with TV mobile, which is generally TV on in-vehicular units, particularly buses, will be kicked off in June this year by M1. For a start, it will be a trial by M1 subscribers to determine the popularity of this technology.

This is in fact nothing new as telecom operators in other countries such as Korea and Japan had been using this for a few years. Pick-up rate, however, had not been good because users have to stare into a small screen for their movies or TV serials. In addition, cost may be a factor because the need for a low subscription rate and the critical mass required for it leaves the telcos in a catch-22 situation.

Personally, I might give this a miss mainly because:

  • I am not really willing to pay more for it
  • I don’t quite enjoy staring into a small screen
  • After my experience with iMode (Starhub), which locked me to a particular phone, I don’t think I want to be locked to another phone
  • Battery life may be an issue – what good is a phone if the battery is flat from watching all the TV programs
  • I doubt the quality of the transmission
  • I would want to spend some time doing something else that will not leave my eyes tired after alighting from the train/bus

With regards to the last statement, I am not sure how different it would be compared to playing games on the PSP, surfing the net on the bus/train, playing games on mobile phones, or reading books – all of which strains the eye in one manner or another. Ultimately, the launch should be market-driven because the lack of subscribers will probably leave the telcos a bad aftertaste, while the absence of good TV programs will leave subscribers wanting.

Lastly there is the question on the type of programs that should be aired. I’m sure there will be a lot of people will difference preferences, but personally, Just-for-laughs, Mr Bean and anything that does not require a long attention span would be good. Of course, this is personal. 😉

FROM June, an M1-MediaCorp trial of mobile TV will see direct broadcasts of full length shows to your handset. However, the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) offer of four mobile TV licences seems more technology- than market-driven.

The idea of converging the extremely high penetration rate of mobile telephony with TV, which everyone watches, is a beguiling one. With WAP, MMS and video calls not being quite the killer applications the telcos need in a saturated market for mobile lines, the search is on for something new.

Yet the trend is towards free video on demand, like YouTube. Being free is critical: On-demand for-pay TV over the Internet is not doing too well, with SingTel’s MIO service garnering only 10,000 subscribers thus far.

The other trend is ever richer content. Specifically, the young are drifting away from over-produced studio content, preferring instead user-generated content. (More later.)

For mobile TV to survive financially, people must want and be willing to pay for traditional broadcast TV on their cellphones. Yet a recent poll found that 95 per cent of Europeans are not interested in mobile TV. Similarly, in its position paper available for public comment through Friday, MDA reveals that ‘only 11 per cent of Singaporeans are willing to pay between S$5 and S$15 per month for (mobile TV, so) demand could be lower than elsewhere’.

There is no mass market demand here for TV simulcasted to mobile phones – even if an industry forecaster like New York-based ABI Research is cheerfully predicting a US$27 billion (S$39 billion) global market by 2010.

The reality is hard. In September 2006, Virgin Mobile became the first in Europe to broadcast TV to handsets. For £25 (S$70) a month, British subscribers got five channels 24/7 of normal free-to-air TV programming on the free Lobster 700, a lumpy handset as ugly as its name. (The service did not work on any other cellphone.)

By July 2007, despite a Pamela Anderson-fronted £2.5 million promotional campaign, Virgin had snagged only 10,000 subscribers in Britain. It was never rolled out to Europe as had been originally planned. The service terminates this month.

Fans would, however, point to South Korea, but even in the world’s quickest adopter of mobile innovations, mobile TV has not been a market success.

In a population of 48 million, there are nine million mobile TV subscribers, according to an October 2007 report from Telecoms Korea. But no operator is making money from this.

In fact, by August 2007, South Korea’s six terrestrial mobile TV operators had accumulated losses between US$22 million and US$33 million each. Its only satellite mobile TV operator, whose losses amount to US$220 million, has already laid off a third of its workforce.

Terrestrial systems use radio signals to broadcast TV and audio channels, which can be received on suitable handsets as well as portable media players and in-car navigation systems. Satellite systems use a satellite signal, which requires a handset that comes with a satellite antenna.

In South Korea, satellite mobile TV – with 13 video and 36 audio channels – costs subscribers US$13 a month on top of their voice and data contract, whereas the terrestrial system – with seven video and 12 audio channels – is free.

The only clear winners in all this are Samsung and LG, who sell expensive TV-ready handsets.

How was mobile TV pioneered in 2005? Basically, the South Korean government pushed it through by, first, mandating the digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) standard when the broadcast spectrum was auctioned off and, next, pressuring vendors to make devices to that standard. Then it made sure that there would be free mobile TV on the terrestrial systems: The studios do not allow telcos carrying their content to charge for the service. So although there are five terrestrial customers for every satellite customer, advertisement revenues have been marginal. The hope for terrestrial operators is that mobile TV might induce more to sign up for their high-end mobile lines.

Both business models, however, are hamstrung by a common problem: There is no killer content. Pundits thought that mobile TV content had to be ‘snack entertainment’, as people would not squint at tiny screens for more than three to five minutes. Music videos were thought to be ideal while other TV content would likely have to be repurposed accordingly.

In fact, the satellite mobile TV service reported in June 2007 that its average user watched for a surprisingly long time – 64 minutes per day – and were demanding higher quality service. People were watching not just on the commute or at lunch but also while in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room, in the toilet, in secret – at work and in school – when they were bored at meetings or with classes, and in their bedrooms too.

It turns out that video length is not as crucial as content. In fact, in a 2007 field study, Nokia experts found that South Korean subscribers considered mobile TV content to be like third-rate programming on cable.

What do people want? In December 2007, Nokia’s Future Laboratory asked trendsetters in 17 countries about their digital lifestyles. From the study, Nokia extrapolated that, in five years’ time, a quarter of the entertainment that people consume will be content which they have themselves created, remixed and passed on to share with peers. Nokia attributed this to the ‘human desire to compare and contrast, create and communicate’.

Whereas once the act of watching, reading and hearing entertainment was passive, it said, consumers are increasingly demanding their entertainment be truly ‘immersive’. That is, people want to be able to access and create entertainment wherever they are, so the offline/online dichotomy will matter little.

It has also to be collaborative in that ‘consumers will want to be recognised and rewarded’, thus blurring the difference between being commercial and being creative.

Finally, as people begin to build their identities in things local, they will want entertainment to be more localised, customised and home-grown too.

If this is any guide, mobile TV cannot be simply (broadcast) TV on your mobile. Instead it must be a new service with a new kind of instantly engaging, made-for-mobile content that people want.

Where to source such content now? Even if service providers could do this and also overcome all other barriers – concerns about battery life, picture clarity, lags when channel surfing, handset pricing – so that mobile TV becomes a success in South Korea, it might still mean little for Singapore.

The South Korean government kick-started the market by mandating technology standards, spectrum allocations as well as free-of-charge terrestrial services to ensure customer uptake – all of which the MDA says it will not do.

But rightly so. Far better to wait and see how the cookie crumbles in South Korea.

andyho@sph.com.sg

Article obtained from straitstimes.com on 17th January 2008



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