- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

Most Americans probably haven’t heard of ICO Global Communications Inc., but the Reston-based startup expects that to change when it rolls out a nationwide service that combines mobile television, navigation and vehicle safety in one device.

Existing mobile TV offerings over cell phones fall short, says ICO, which spent half a billion dollars this spring launching the world’s largest commercial satellite.

“We’re first because we’re the first people to put up a nationwide mobile video offering,” said Tim Bryan, ICO’s chief executive officer. Qualcomm Inc.’s MediaFlo service, which powers video over AT&T and Verizon phones, is available in about 55 markets.

“Forty-three million people go down to Florida on I-95 each year,” Mr. Bryan said. “As soon as you leave Richmond, you won’t be back in coverage until Jacksonville, [Florida], so you better stock up on DVDs because that’s all you’ve got. If you leave L.A. and head north, you’ll come back into coverage in Portland.”

ICO’s Mobile Interactive Media technology is designed for screens between 7 inches and 15 inches wide on the seat backs of cars. The company plans to offer 10 to 15 channels of live general-interest TV content as well as GPS navigation and in-car assistance such as OnStar from General Motors Corp.

The service is better than MediaFlo, Mr. Bryan said, because ICO’s network blankets the country, so the service will work everywhere. MIM beats TV over cell phones and smaller devices, he added, because the screen is bigger and the company’s satellite allows two-way communication, making it interactive.

“You can vote on American Idol, you can do all kinds of things,” said Craig Jorgens, ICO’s president. Executives also cited real-time traffic updates and the potential for social networking.

ICO will sell the service on a subscription basis, charging between $15 and $25 for the three-in-one system. OnStar subscriptions begin at $18.95 a month, and mobile video services from the nation’s top three wireless carriers cost about $15 a month for about eight channels.

“We think this is going to appeal to families, obviously to kids; it’s meant to appeal to everybody in the car,” Mr. Bryan said. “I think the market is going to be as big for it as satellite radio.”

Together, Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio - which merged last week to form Sirius XM Radio Inc. - have about 18.5 million customers who pay $12.95 a month. Sirius offers a back-seat TV service for $7 a month, but ICO executives say they aren’t very concerned because at present it includes just three channels for children.

As did XM and Sirius, the company is targeting automobiles in its initial rollout, expected to occur near the end of next year at the earliest. MIM will be tested in Raleigh, N.C., and Las Vegas beginning in late September.

ICO is in talks with major automakers about having MIM service factory-installed in new vehicles. So far, it has teamed with Delphi Corp. to develop compatible equipment, which can be purchased at an electronics retailer and installed in the car if it isn’t already.

“You look back at XM and Sirius, and XM did really well in all these GM dealerships at first, right in with the car,” said Elaine Potter, an analyst at the research firm In-Stat.

Wireless companies haven’t disclosed how many of their customers subscribe to cell-phone-based TV services, but the concept has been slow to catch on. Just 3 percent of U.S. wireless customers over age 18 watch mobile video, according to Nielsen Mobile, and though ABI Research expects worldwide subscribers to grow to 462 million by 2012, 260 million of those users are expected to be in Asia.

In-Stat analyst David Chamberlain said people are interested in mobile TV - they just don’t want to pay for it.

“That’s a huge issue, so in order to really achieve that kind of penetration, to get those kinds of monthly service prices, they’re going to have to have one heck of a good content capability,” Mr. Chamberlain said, adding that the broadcast industry could prove to have the most formidable mobile video competitors if they launch a service that is free and ad-supported.

No company provides TV, navigation and roadside assistance in one service across the country, putting ICO in uncharted waters.

“I’ve been in the cable TV business for a pretty long time. You don’t want to underestimate Americans’ desire for TV,” Mr. Bryan said, adding that the cable industry at first “thought the Direct TV guys were going nowhere.”

ICO was founded in 1995 and filed for bankruptcy four years later. It emerged in 2000 with the help of wireless mogul Craig McCaw. The company shifted its business plan last year to focus on satellite TV and navigation.

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