The Future of Mobile

Guest Column

David Murphy

Mobile TV The Facts

By Jonathan Bass, Managing Director of mobile marketing company, Incentivated

Theres a lot of excitement around the idea of TV on your mobile phone, but a lot of people dont realise quite how complicated a subject it is. In fact, there are two entirely different and competing ways of getting TV onto your mobile. Within these fundamentally different approaches, there are several encoding variants. Just to confuse the matter further, there are also mobile-video downloads, though we should not call them television.

The Mobile TV experiment being conducted in Oxford by O2, Nokia and NTL (Arqiva) at present requires a completely new network infrastructure and set of standards. It does not work on existing 2G/2.5G or 3G phones. 

Rather than streaming video over a 3G (broadband) cellular network as 3, Vodafone and Orange are doing for on-demand services, with this new technology, you would need a handset with a 'second aerial' in order to enable it to pick up Digital Video Broadcasts, (DVB) as well as voice calls. This would allow you to view many of the channels you can access via Freeview, in much the same way as a PC can pick up DVB.

This is a true terrestrial broadcast technology, like radio and TV. Powerful transmitters broadcast to everyone, and it does not matter how many people pick it up. (Just to confuse matters even further, there is also another terrestrial broadcast method called DMB  - Digital Multimedia Broadcasting - which is based on DAB - Digital Audio Broadcasting - digital radio, though it has not built up the same momentum.) 

Meanwhile, Mobile TV streamed over 3G networks is a one-to-one, cellular technology, with severe implications for capacity. Its important to note in the case of DVB that you can't change the timing of the TV show - you pick up what is being broadcast at the time; i.e. linear TV. How long it will be before your mobile device can also record and store programmes for viewing at a time of your choice is a moot point. 

Hauppage is one of the market-leaders in DVB on the PC and if you go to you can see what you can buy to access Freeview on your PC.  Since a mobile phone these days is just a mobile-PC, the technical leap is merely one of miniaturisation.  If you can fit the hardware and software that you need for a PC (about the size of a CD-Rom drive) into a handset, then you have a new form of mobile TV. Alternatively, you use the existing 3G networks and handsets and stream on-demand TV as you would over the internet.

The DVB-H (the H stands for handheld) route is the way O2 and Nokia seem to be going, whereas some of the networks and handset companies have decided there is no need for another standard, believing that mobile TV will only ever be on-demand, and that, therefore, their existing 3G services can just stream TV like you watch it on a PC.  It's a real VHS/Betamax-style fight to the death!

What is the difference for you and me? Streaming is more for on-demand content, whereas DVB-H is a linear service. As for battery life, image quality etc., they should be the same, technically, with enough investment and the passage of time. I think it will take a good few years to shrink the technology and produce good battery life at an affordable price and without compromising the features of a mobile that people have got used to, but of course when they do, the broadcasting infrastructure is there.  Therefore streamed (3G) mobile TV will, in my opinion, arrive for the masses 3-5 years before DVB-H. In fact, three of the UK networks are already offering it, though it is early days for the technology and the picture can be very jerky. 

Meanwhile, if you want to predict the future of mobile TV, first answer the question - how will people watch it?  The successful technology will follow the demand. Other, albeit clever, technologies will simply wither or forever remain niche products.

Consider the following scenarios:

1. Will people watch programmes that are on the TV at the same time, but bizarrely, choose to watch on a tiny screen if they have other options?  I don't think so - the screen is too small, so DVB on a mobile will never be anything other than a niche way of watching, but on the PSP (Playstation Portable), well that might be a different matter.  (There is another debate here: how many people will carry a handheld device that does everything well, or will most of us continue to buy a phone with additional functionality as an afterthought thrown in for free?)

2. Will people watch TV on a handset, either because someone else is watching the main TV in the house, or because they are late home from work and want to watch the start of Eastenders on the mobile on the train, i.e. as a second, back-up, choice? Yes to a small extent, but this relies on DVB-H, so it will be delayed until many years after people are already snacking on 3G (on-demand) TV.

3. Or will they watch specials (like the previews of 'Lost') on-demand in order to fill 'grey time'; snacking because they are bored? Yes again, but only when they are kicking their heels looking for something to do. Because, let's face it, the experience will remain highly constrained on the average handset.

I recently saw an NOP-O2 survey which was interesting (a) because of the absence of serious discussion of any form of mobile-TV (ominous!); and (b) because it found that the young market was interested in filling 'grey time' on their mobile, while the older audience was interested in information services.  Neither group showed an interest in watching TV through their mobile as a first choice, other than when they can't get to a real TV.

If 2 and 3 are right then this means:

Overall mobile TV consumption will be very low compared with total hours the key measure for advertisers, and therefore commercial broadcasters.  If consumption is low, then budgets will have to be low for commercial survival.  Rarely will you see genuinely made-for-mobile shows.

There will be two spikes - one in 2007,  when quality 3GTV services come of age, then another, next decade, or whenever when DVB-H appears in a lightweight and compact form.

You need both DVB-H (or DMB) and streamed 3G services to deliver the different usage scenarios, and if you need two technologies, will people be disappointed with only one, when it does not work in all the ways they expect it to?  I fear a lot of disappointment in the real world. Unless of course, dual-mode devices can offer consumers the best of both worlds soon, and for a low price.

Finally, some thoughts on the concept of watching TV on a mobile. This is an extreme example of convergence. Mobile has 10-20% the pixels of analogue TV (only 1-2% of HDTV), and I do not see the average consumer putting up with this quality reduction during an entire episode.  But as mobile phones screens grow in size, so some viewers will end up with a device that has a screen the size of the PSP and the experience will improve.  My money, however, is on a phone/camera combo for talking and taking pictures and an iPod/PSP combo for entertainment, including music and TV. Remember, not every has the same needs - not everyone wants to play games and watch TV on the move. You don't have, and never will need, to cram everything into one device to have a commercial product offering. Convergence will not be anywhere near absolute in my lifetime.

Still, I think most viewing of Mobile TV will be on-demand.  Few viewers will make an appointment to view via mobile while the content is being broadcast on TV simultaneously. The mobile experience will more of a time-filler, watching cliff-hangers again from the day before as you wait for a bus, or catching the opening sequence as your train finally pulls into the station, late again, before getting home and switching on the TV. Mostly though Mobile TV will be fill-time-TV not must-see-TV and will reflect some of the characteristics of radio, which is sometimes considered a background medium.

And that is the problem: will people pay to watch a repeat on-demand or a few minutes of a preview?  Some will, but most will not.  Still, if you have the content already, as the broadcasters do, the cost of making it available via mobile as well is low.  So if I were in their shoes, I would be doing the same thing, but I would be reigning in the costs, because the revenues are going to be relatively small for a long, long time. A lot of people are going to lose a lot of money on Mobile TV, trying to change the watching habits of people who don't respond to such pressures.  Now Mobile Video for purely advertising purposes (i.e. free to the consumer) - that's a different matter.

Before co-founding Incentivated in 2001, Jonathan Bass worked in radio and television.

DVB Organisation

More on Mobile TV:

O2 Mobile TV Trials Read.

Mobile TV Who Wants It? Read.