Mobile TV: who needs it?

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Two big UK mobile TV trails reported last month, and for a change the results are reasonably meaningful.
A consortium of O2, Arquiva and Nokia had been trialling a DVB-H broadcast mobile TV service in Oxford; 375 people used Nokia smartphones to view a choice of 16 channels.

And BT Movio – formerly BT LiveTime (which somehow sounds a more sensible name, even if both of them are pretty meaningless) – has just completed a six-month trial of DAB-based services with Virgin Mobile covering 850 users in Greater London.

DVB-H is the technology that currently seems in pole position, but DAB – which basically uses digital radio channels to carry the TV pictures – is simpler and cheaper. It’s also available now.

People want mobile TV …

The headline conclusion from both trials: there is a high level of consumer interest in a commercial mobile broadcasting service in the UK. In Oxford, 76% of the trailists said they would subscribe to the service within 12 months. And BT Movio described the results from its own trial as “extremely positive” and demonstrating “clear consumer demand”.

The O2 trialists watched for an average of three hours a week, BT Movio viewers for one hour. Why? It could be the handset choice (HTC versus Nokia) but it’s more likely to be down to the channels on offer – there were 16 in Oxford, compared to BT Movio’s six.

DVB-H is on a winner here, since it can carry more channels … But the necessary spectrum isn’t available in the UK yet. Widespread coverage is unlikely before 2012. You get fewer channels with DAB, but because digital radio is available right now the spectrum is available today.

But no money changed hands …
There was also a market difference when participants were asked how much they would pay for the service.

BT Movio’s users said £5 per month, O2 users went for £8. Again, that probably reflects the greater choice of channels again; more important, no-one actually had to sign a direct debit there and then – actually getting people to pay up might prove more difficult.

That’s particularly pertinent in view of the handsets that will be used; they tend to be high-end, high-priced phones like the HTCs in the BT Movio trial or the Nokias in Oxford.

True, the networks may choose to play around with service bundles and handset subsidies to soften the impact on the user’s wallets.

… Or do they really want radio?
Perhaps the most interesting result from the BT Movio trial was the appeal of the service in terms of access to digital radio, which was also on offer – “while 59% rated mobile television as appealing or very appealing by the end of a six-month test, 65% said the same about digital radio”. The trailists watched 66 minutes of TV in the week, but they listed to 95 minutes of radio.

Emma Lloyd, managing director of BT’s Movio business, is sanguine about this. “We will be able to piggyback on the attractive-ness of digital radio and I don’t think that is a negative thing; I see it as a positive thing because the UK leads the world in digital radio.”

There were some nuggets of spin hidden in the facts, too. From the Oxford trial, 28% of the users watched mobile TV mainly on the move and 23% mainly at work … But the 36% of them used the service mainly
at home, where presumably they have a perfectly serviceable TV set. The novelty of watching TV on a mobile might be skewing the figures; especially for those who don’t have the range of channels available via digital.

Coming real soon now
So what happens next? For the DVB-H camp, its propaganda time; it needs Ofcom to release more of the right spectrum, and it needs to get more operators on board with mobile TV.

Mike Short, VP of research and development at O2, said “We want to explore much more UK collaborative activity”. Dr Hyacinth Nwana, MD of mobile media solutions at Arquiva, was more explicit: “As an industry, we’re going to have to speak with one voice… There has to be some infrastructure sharing”.

As for the DAB alternative, BT Movio has confirmed that it will be launching a commercial service this summer. It will probably start with a simplified version ready to cover the World Cup in early June.
BT Movio’s service is being made available to all UK operators who will be free to set their own price structures – BT Movio will make its money from a revenue share.

In the meantime operators are steaming ahead with narrowcasting options delivered to individuals via 3G. Vodafone for instance launched its own “global Mobile TV” at the same time as the broadcast trials were reported, offering a mix of well-known TV brands like HBO (Sex and the City and Six Feet Under), Eurosport, MTV, UEFA Champions League, Discovery and 24 in a format specially edited for mobile.