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Mobile TV slowly becoming a reality for American cellular subscribers

Mobile TV rollouts continue moving forward with the major service providers, despite some daunting challenges.

As users tune in to mobile TV on cell phones, carriers are rolling out plans to both create and fill demand for...

premium content on the tiny screen.

For years, such offerings found limited market share because of a lack of consumer awareness, a dearth of programming options, and no scalable distribution channel. While 3G networks can support streaming video to a few users, the escalating demands of 1-to-1 transmissions have strained the ability to offer high-quality resolution to a large number of subscribers simultaneously.

One way or another, however, most of these obstacles are falling by the wayside and user adoption is picking up. A recent study by M:Metrics found that 8 million Americans had viewed mobile video at some point, a growth of more than a third in viewership since last January.

To cope with the rising bandwidth needs, Verizon and AT&T have both signed on to use MediaFLO, a network created by Qualcomm that uses a wireless spectrum different from that of regular cell phones to speedily broadcast scheduled programming to handsets designed for the network. Since MediaFLO provides its own back end, service providers do not need to worry about overwhelming their networks with a jump in bandwidth usage.

In fact, MediaFLO has designed its network specifically for broadcasting, rather than unicasting, data. This means that an almost unlimited number of users can tap into it and watch streaming content without competing for limited bandwidth resources.

Julie Reynolds, senior marketing manager for MediaFLO, said the service is currently available in more than 40 cities, with coverage being extended and strengthened throughout the country. She declined to give a specific timetable for this rollout.

Reynolds said she believed that mobile TV would quickly find a consumer market, and one of the biggest obstacles would be raising product awareness.

"I think it is something that's going to take some time, but I think in general we're seeing mobile TV be more and more understood," she said. "Certainly, there's a long way to go before everyone and their grandmother knows that you can get TV on your cell phone."

She said MediaFLO now offers eight channels at any given moment but could support up to 20 channels of video data with another 10 channels of audio broadcasting.

The service is currently being offered by Verizon as V CAST Mobile TV, with AT&T slated to offer the same service under its own branding in early 2008.

Not all providers are believers in the broadcast model, however. Sprint, which has had some of the most ambitious State-side video rollouts, recently extended its partnership to unicast content with MobiTV for another three years, using Sprint's own data networks. In Europe, MachBlue has similarly partnered with Orange and other carriers to deliver integrated mobile solutions, and it is now looking to compete in the U.S. market.

John McCalla, CTO of BlueStreak, said that the key to using video to boost provider ARPU is tight integration. He said that with one phone launch that BlueStreak helped implement, phones with pre-integrated mobile TV players generated 100 euros a month versus 54 euros a month ARPU otherwise, all else being equal.

"There is a way to be successful with increasing [consumer] data usage, and part of that is making easy services to consume the data," McCalla said. BlueStreak provides a framework that tightly integrates content browsing with viewing to help make the experience more seamless for end users. He said Orange's switch from a WAP browser that launched an external viewing program to the integrated program boosted mobile TV usage tenfold.

With the prospect of almost doubling ARPU, carriers are pushing to find and deliver the types of content users want while rapidly monetizing the services. Reynolds said that MediaFLO had identified four major content areas users were interested in: news, sports, entertainment and children's programming. To fill this need, all the networks have been working to provide exclusive concerts, TV shows, sporting events and even full-length films.

Their success in pushing this premium content has been mixed, however. The most popular content by far is viral video, which has well over twice the viewership of the traditionally programmed content the networks have developed.

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