Trying For True Mobile Broadband TV

By Naomi Graychase

February 23, 2007

MobiTV has small-screen programming on phones, and has experimented with WiMax, but is it the future for TV viewing?

It's hard to believe that one day we might turn our backs on our fancy flat-panel high-definition televisions so that we can sit in front of our cell phones or laptops to watch the latest episode of Survivor -- or whatever show has grabbed our attention by then. But according to MobiTV's CTO, Kay Johansson, that future has already arrived.

"If you have a device at home, we are starting to see some of our users say, 'I use this as my personal TV at home,'" Johannson says. "Even if they have a cable subscription and a big 30" TV, they still might bring it up on their cell phone. It's becoming more and more 'my personal TV,' and you can watch it wherever you are, even at home, still using the device. It doesn't necessarily mean that you watch your big screen TV; you just want to watch your TV when you want to."

MobiTV, a California-based company, is banking on convergence -- coupled with Americans' passionate interest in never being separated from their televisions -- as the way of the future. Currently, it provides film, television and music content to more than one million subscribers worldwide who primarily purchase the service through their cell phone providers. In the US, AT&T, Sprint, Cingular and Alltel all offer the service to their customers. In some cases, the MobiTV brand remains; in others, the carrier adopts the service and re-brands it under its own name, as with Sprint TV.

In a nutshell, what MobiTV provides is live TV and video-on-demand services for handheld and Windows Mobile devices, as well as for PCs. The company works directly with carriers, rather than with consumers. If an interested consumer visits MobiTV's site, she will be guided to the right provider. For instance, if you want to order a subscription for your PC, MobiTV will connect you with AT&T, the only vendor currently offering a MobiTV service for PCs.

The company got its start in 1999 and launched its first service in 2003. To date, it has licensed approximately 35 channels and even has an Emmy under its belt. Channels include the same ones you'd receive through cable or satellite packages (although there is no local programming) as well as MobiTV-created channels.

"If you are a carrier or operator and you say, 'We want a TV service on our phone,' we take care of everything from satellite feed to transcoding to distributing the application devices on phones -- we also license content," says Johansson.

As for who's using the service, MobiTV is tight-lipped about its user base and considers its demographic a trade secret.

"It's one of the things that we know," says Johansson. "We know when they're watching, what they're watching. This is one of our things. If you look at our channel lineup, you may be surprised, but you can be sure that it's based on what's working."

At CES, the company partnered with NDS to demo what it billed as "the first ever mobile WiMAX broadcast TV service."

"The main thing we showed with WiMAX: it's a technology that's extremely well-suited for TV issues," says Johansson. "With two-way communication, you can do all the interactivity -- you have all of those advantages -- but you're still mobile. On top of that, we also showed with this demo that we dynamically can mix between uni-cost and multi-cost models. So, if you're in one sector and one person is watching a TV show, if several people start watching the same show, you can switch into multi-cost mode. One technology can accommodate both models. By adding conditional access, you can create the same kind of ecosystem as you have with cable TV."

While MobiTV over WiMAX hasn't grown beyond this demo stage, the company sees great potential for a true mobile TV service via WiMAX.

"When you watch TV on a cell phone today," says Johansson, "you have a cell phone that is fairly small and you have coverage problems. With WiMAX, it gives you mobile Internet, which makes it possible to get really good quality TV to a WiMAX-enabled device. To us, it is going to be PCs, mobile phones, PDAs, maybe even set-top boxes. We showed TV streaming as high as 1Mbps; that's an extremely good TV experience. The WiMAX, in itself, really accommodates true mobile TV and the richness you expect from a TV service."

Johansson also sees great potential for interactive TV services that employ WiMAX.

"You can accommodate location-based services with GPS solutions, so that you can get traffic reports, weather reports, and things like this. WiMAX, in general, is a really powerful technology. From a user experience, it's like mobile broadband. It's all of these good technologies you have in Wi-Fi, combined with all of the mobile cellular network. That is the combination of the strength of WiMAX," says Johansson.

MobiTV is positioning itself as a company that is ready for the next wave.

"We can provide reliability, speed and mobility -- the WiMAX network enhances our service immensely," says Johansson.



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