February 10, 2005, 11:27 AM — Just when you thought your mobile phone had about all the features you can handle -- telephony, messaging, gaming, music and photography -- guess what? Another is on the way: TV.
Mobile phone manufacturers and network operators around the globe are tuning into mobile TV big time. And many of them plan to use the mammoth 3GSM World Congress, which begins on Monday in Cannes, France, as a backdrop to tout their new products and services.
The surge in interest comes as the cell phone industry explores new ways to generate revenue beyond its cash-cow telephony business. For sure, mobile TV could be a new money spinner, provided the technology works and the service is affordable. Early developments are encouraging.
For those not familiar with mobile TV, the service has two primary and potentially competing distribution channels. This distinction is often overlooked.
With one, mobile phones receive regular TV broadcasts using special antennas. With the other, the signal is transmitted over the mobile network as a stream of video data. The big difference between the two is broadcast's one-to-many relationship versus mobile's one-to-one.
The broadcast technology isn't entirely new. Some countries, notably Japan and South Korea, have been working on it for the past few years. Unfortunately, each has developed its own standard. That's a problem for the global mobile market.
The Japanese format, called ISDB-T (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting - Terrestrial), is still undergoing field tests. The South Korean format, DMB (Digital Media Broadcasting), is featured in a phone that LG Electronics Inc. unveiled in November. Rival Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. is following with its own DMB-enabled phone.
The mobile TV picture in the U.S. is still a bit fuzzy. The country's digital broadcasting standard ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) lacks a mobile component. Qualcomm Inc. is trying to fill that void with its own proprietary MediaFLO (forward link only) multicasting technology -- an alternative to digital broadcasting.
The technology, which would also accommodate the streaming of content over 3G networks, transmits in the 700-megahertz range and requires 30 to 50 times fewer towers than a cellular network. Qualcomm has announced plans to provide a chip that promises playback at up to 30 frames per second.
But a European format, DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting - Handheld), also appears to be gaining traction in the U.S. Last year, Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia Corp. and cell-tower operator Crown Castle International Corp. began trials of the technology in Pittsburgh.