- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

It may not boast the big screen that has friends begging to come over and watch the game — but then again, that’s the point.

The promise of mobile television rests in the portability of cell phones — a fact that is not lost on U.S. wireless carriers who serve 255 million subscribers.

With AT&T; Inc. rolling out its mobile-TV service next month — joining Verizon Wireless Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. — the three largest carriers are tempting consumers to use their cell phones for more than talking, texting or surfing the Web.

But despite carriers’ investments in mobile TV, questions have loomed about consumer demand for the service.

Neither Verizon nor Sprint would disclose information on subscribers, but only 3 percent of wireless customers over the age of 18 use their phones to view video or TV, according to Nielsen Mobile. While ABI Research expects the ranks of mobile-TV subscribers to grow to 462 million by 2012, 260 million of those users will be in Asia.

Many explanations have been given for the low penetration of mobile TV in the United States. Paul Jacobs, chief executive of Qualcomm Inc. — which powers both Verizon’s V Cast Mobile TV and AT&T;’s upcoming service — last month said carriers are not spending many advertising dollars on the effort, according to RCR Wireless News. Others say it’s easier for consumers to access content directly via the Web rather than a subscription-based service tied to their carriers. Some say there isn’t enough content to choose from.

“Mobile TV is in the very early stages. There are only a few channels to watch today,” telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan said.

But the most popular answer: People simply don’t want to pay to watch TV on their cell phones.

“It costs too much money. That’s the whole story — period,” said David Chamberlain, a wireless-industry analyst with In-Stat.

Unlike traditional broadcast TV, which is ad-supported and free for viewers, wireless carriers in the United States charge monthly subscriptions or download fees to view their mobile-TV content.

Among U.S. carriers, Sprint offers the most channels. Its basic plan for $15 a month comes with eight channels in addition to movie trailers: CNN Mobile, Fox Sports, Fox Mobile, Weather Channel, Disney Channel and E! Entertainment, NFL Network and its own original-programming channel.

Users have the option of receiving 20 additional channels for $5 more. Mobile TV also can be bundled as part of Sprint’s new pricing plan with unlimited calls, texts and Web surfing for $99.99 a month.

Unlike Sprint, neither Verizon nor AT&T;’s recent flat-rate pricing deals — $99.99 a month for unlimited calling — cover mobile TV. Both use Qualcomm’s MediaFlo technology and offer eight channels: CBS Mobile, Comedy Central, ESPN Mobile TV, Fox Mobile, MTV, NBC News to go, NBC to go and Nickelodeon. Verizon recently added two channels, ESPN Radio and MTV Tr3s, which is dedicated to Latin music.

Verizon’s TV service starts at $13 a month for a limited package of four channels and $15 for eight channels. AT&T;, which recently inked a deal with Sony Pictures Television to offer full-length movies in addition to its broadcast channels, has not yet released pricing details.

“You look at what we’re paying for cable — $40, $50, $60 — that’s a lot of money but somehow people perceive that as having value,” Mr. Chamberlain said.

“What you get for that $15 on a cell phone might be good, might be high-quality video, but is there enough value in that eight channels that they offer and are you going to pay $15 for eight or 10 channels when you’re paying $50 for those very same channels plus $40 more on your cable system?” he said.

Last August, Mr. Chamberlain polled 1,100 consumers about mobile TV. While about 58 percent of people were at least “somewhat interested” in MediaFlo, that number declined to 24 percent when they learned the monthly price, he said. If there were no subscription fee involved, 58 percent of respondents again said they were “somewhat interested” in the idea, but this time interest declined by only 26 percentage points when they were told they would have to pay for a mobile receiver to channel-surf.

The broadcast industry, though partnering with carriers, is developing its own mobile-video plan. At the National Association of Broadcasters’ trade show in Las Vegas this week, NAB President David Rehr predicted that TV stations could rake in as much as $2 billion in additional revenues over the next five years by sending their programming directly to consumer devices, according to a report in Multichannel News.

In addition to content owners, carriers will have to compete with emerging technology that allows users to access video outside their “walled garden” offerings. For example, Sling Media’s SlingPlayer Mobile lets users view content on their home TV over their cell phones, as long as they have Windows Mobile, Palm or Symbian operating systems.

Users can always surf the Web to watch videos directly at YouTube.com, for example, or at new sites such as mywaves.com Inc., which is free and formatted specifically for mobile-video users. The site can be viewed on most video-ready phones and boasts more than 300,000 professional, user-generated and personal clips. Of course, iPhone users can also watch videos through Apple Corp.’s iTunes service.

“What I believe about mobile video is that it really is not a cellular play,” said Mr. Chamberlain, who predicted that subscription-based mobile TV will remain a niche offering for the foreseeable future. “By the time everybody gets the picture, the broadcasters here in the U.S. could very well own the market.”

Despite its popularity, the iPhone isn’t equipped for AT&T;’s upcoming mobile-TV service. The carrier currently has two handsets, the Vu from LG and the Samsung Access, capable of receiving the service. Verizon’s V Cast Mobile TV can be accessed on four devices, while Sprint TV has 17, as well as the iPhone-like Instinct from Samsung that was unveiled earlier this month.

As the number of TV-ready phones and channels increase, consumer interest in mobile TV will grow, said Mr. Kagan.

“It will take time. It started a few years ago,” he said. “A few years from now, it should be very popular.”

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