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If You Build It, Will They Come?

by Anthony Bontrager on April 6, 2011

For the past few years we’ve continually heard the broadcast community tout the advantages of mobile DTV, a “yet-be-widely-deployed” video delivery platform that enables local TV stations to deliver live, digital content to specially equipped mobile video devices such as mobile phones, portable media players, laptop computers, etc.  We’ve also been told how consumers will embrace this platform overwhelmingly.  But will they?

Admittedly, the unique aspect of this brand of video service (as opposed to app or web delivered content) is that it is delivered “in-band”, meaning local TV broadcasters are providing this service to consumers over their terrestrial broadcast signals – the very same transmission channel they use for their current digital TV programming.

Yet the recent demise of Qualcomm’s FLO TV experiment and the less than stellar enthusiasm for other mobile TV services continues to plague Mobile DTV’s vocal supporters and has generated fundamental questions about the offering and its future.

Specifically:

– What are the business models? – Advertising continues to be the platform of choice for many, and broadcasters seem well suited to this model.  However, much is being made around Mobile DTV being subscription driven.  If so, there are few analogues that point to a successful mobile video offering under a subscription model.  MobiTV remains the only one to have cracked this code.

– What types of content are feasible for the small screen? While there are numerous compression technologies available to reduce the bandwidth of the video streams, Mobile DTV will still be challenged in offering action or sports content due to motion artifacts and stuttering.  Even the Open Mobile Video Coalition (“OMVC”) website says that 480p H.264 delivery will be available “in the future.”  Additionally, give the limited depth of the spectrum being used, only a small amount of channels will be available.  This is one of the many problems that plagued the FLO TV platform and led to its closure.

– How much time will consumers spend watching TV on mobile devices? Cross platform video provider 1CAST showed people will spend significant time (20 min +/session) watching personalized and curated video on mobile devices.  Unfortunately, live programmed television does not address the on-demand nature of mobile video consumption.  If consumers are unable to watch what they want, when they want, Mobile DTV will not have the kind of uptake its supporters claim.

Even if the foregoing can be solved, and you can argue that each are in fact solvable, we are still left with the fact that manufacturers need to properly equip new handsets with ATSC DTV tuners in order to receive the Mobile DTV signals.  This will naturally drive up the cost of the device that will then need to be either (a) subsidized by the mobile carrier or (b) passed through to the consumer.  Either way, you are faced with a not-so- insignificant fixed cost applied against a market that has yet to demonstrate real consumer adoption or a business model geared towards today’s consumer preferences.

As in years past, next week’s NAB Show will likely highlight many Mobile DTV platforms, services and technologies.  I’ll be looking forward to learning more about how its supporters can address these and other practical business issues.

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