Mobile TV could finally become a reality in the UK, after spectrum allowing high-quality, digital TV to be broadcast on mobiles was released last month. Some networks already offer mobile TV but have not achieved significant take-up because of the inferior picture quality of technologies currently available compared with digital broadcast technologies.
Despite the limited success of mobile TV through 3G networks, operators still haven’t given up on the opportunity. Earlier this year, T-Mobile and Orange announced a trial of technology called TdTV.
Vodafone has probably been the most active operator in mobile TV. It was the first to launch a service two-and-a-half years ago, in partnership with Sky.
Vodafone still offers live streaming of a number of Sky channels, including Sky Sports and Sky News, as well as other channels including ITV. However, despite free trial periods, the operator has been struggling to get subscriber figures to the service beyond 250,000, according to industry insiders.
The content Vodafone offers appears to be appealing to customers, however. Mike Eaton, Vodafone’s head of internet services, says that people mostly use their mobile to watch sports, news and live events.
Mobile TV usage figures from market research company GfK are even less encouraging, showing that only 0.5% of all users in the UK watched TV on their handsets in March.
One of the reasons networks are unable to win more mobile TV subscribers is the low picture quality on 3G transmissions – the only technology currently available.
Eaton says: ‘There is obviously a limit to 3G as a mobile TV technology. It’s something that people are aware of. But people are willing to accept a lower quality and smaller screens to be able to watch great content on the move.
‘The market is in its infancy, but we are constantly working on improving the experience.’
Sky has also been a pioneering force in mobile TV. Its content is available on almost all the networks and the company has been involved in a number of technology trials. Furthermore, Sky’s brand has been instrumental in educating consumers about mobile TV – for a lot of people Sky is synonymous with great content. Eaton also confirms that on Vodafone the Sky channels are constantly among the most viewed.
Despite Sky’s relative success in the nescient mobile TV market, Stephen Nuttall, Sky’s director of commercial group, agrees that the transmission quality needs to improve before it can reach mass-market appeal.
‘Although people are already watching mobile TV, there are still some clear improvements that need to be made to the overall experience,’ he told Mobile in April. ‘Customers often lament the quality of video over 3G, complaining about issues such as picture quality as well as the difficulties of getting and keeping a signal.
‘To help counter this, deploying a broadcast mobile TV technology would offer some clear benefits.’
The lack of spectrum to build a dedicated digital mobile TV broadcast network has been the main inhibitor for better quality services, until now. Last month, US technology company Qualcomm won Ofcom’s L-Band spectrum auction, and now owns frequency that can be used to broadcast mobile TV.
Although the technology giant hasn’t confirmed it will use the spectrum for mobile TV, this is the most likely option, according to analysts.
A spokesperson for Qualcomm tells Mobile: ‘We are not talking about what we are doing yet. Lots of different technologies could be deployed in this spectrum, including mobile TV, or technologies to increase network capacity and indoor coverage.’
However, Qualcomm has already launched mobile TV services in its home market with two of the major US operators, Verizon Wireless and AT&T. The company has built a separate network to broadcast mobile TV in the US using its proprietary MediaFLO technology, rather than relying on operators’ cellular networks – as is the case with UK networks’ mobile TV services. Qualcomm is expected to bring the same solution to the UK.
The company has been actively promoting MediaFLO in Europe for a few years. Qualcomm ran a technology trial in partnership with Sky in Cambridge two years ago, and has since been looking for mobile TV opportunities in the country. The company’s senior directors have cited repeatedly the lack of available spectrum as the main obstacle to launching a UK mobile TV proposition.
Benefits of broadcast
Using a dedicated mobile broadcast mobile TV technology would enable better picture quality and make delivering content more efficient, as the technology broadcasts the signal on a one-to-many basis rather than delivering it to phones individually.
A broadcast service would also remove concerns over capacity, as networks try to cope with more data-heavy traffic as the popularity of USB dongles and other non-voice services increase. TV content takes up a significant amount of operators’ capacity; for example, Nuttall says that only seven people can watch mobile TV in one individual cell. With a mobile TV broadcast solution, such as Qualcomm’s MediaFLO, the signal transmits to all phones at the same time and the problem of network congestion disappears.
In addition to removing the issue of network capacity, a broadcast technology also improves picture quality. ‘The picture quality is vastly better on digital broadcast service, and graphics and sporting action is pin-sharp,’ says Nuttall.
Qualcomm has made it clear that it doesn’t want to become a mobile TV operator outside the US, so it is likely to only build the mobile TV broadcast network and allow another company to take over the running of it. Because Qualcomm already has a relationship with keen mobile TV advocate Sky, analysts see the broadcaster as a potential partner.
Sky is unwilling to confirm whether it would look to enter into a deal with Qualcomm. A spokesperson for Sky told Mobile: ‘We’re strong advocates of mobile TV and even better forms of mobile video. We are technology neutral and as we evolve our mobile services there may be opportunities for collaboration with broadcast mobile TV networks.
‘We’ve gained some valuable lessons from our successful 3G mobile TV service, as we have through our trials of broadcast network technologies. We’ll evaluate L-band [spectrum bought by Qualcomm] as we will any other opportunity.’
The BBC has also been actively involved in mobile TV and is another contender for getting its content onto the service. A spokeswoman from the BBC says: ‘The BBC is interested in mobile TV and we talk to all players. We are watching the current situation [with Qualcomm] with interest.’
Vodafone refused to comment on future plans regarding Qualcomm. Meanwhile, O2 has always maintained it wouldn’t want to do mobile TV over 3G because of the quality limitations, but rather wait for a broadcast technology to become available.
A spokesman for O2 says: ‘The experience offered over 3G is not good enough for our customers. Broadcast is the right way to do it. We did a DVB-H trial in Oxford two years ago, but MediaFLO is another potential technology. It is too early to say, but we would certainly be interested to hear what their plans are.’
One big setback for Qualcomm came in March when the European Telecoms Commissioner, Viviane Reding, decided that DVB-H, a competing mobile TV broadcast technology, should become the European standard. She argues that for mobile TV to succeed in Europe, the market needs a standardis