Mobile television services have been available for some time now but are yet to really take off. However, a new forecast released by market analysis firm ABI research expects mobile TV subscribers to reach 462 million worldwide by 2012. Questions remain as to what will drive this take-up, as many consumers are still unwilling to use the service or pay to receive television on the move. So, asks Weijie Yun, what are the factors preventing mass take-up and how can the industry address them to reap the benefits of widespread usage of mobile television?
There has been much debate in Europe around industry growth and how a common standard could encourage mass consumer take-up. Viviane Reding, EU Telecoms Commissioner, spoke at a mobile TV conference at CeBIT in March last year and noted that we (the industry) are too slow and too uncoordinated to create the right conditions for a quick take up of mobile TV on a large scale in Europe. Reding said that according to some estimates, around 200 million Europeans could be viewing television via a handheld terminal by 2015 and the market could be worth ?20 billion. She believes that mobile TV is still a nascent market in Europe, and much more remains to be done. Reding believes that only with economies of scale will we have an efficient use of spectrum, affordable handsets and rapid consumer take-up. Reding continues to give strong support to European standardised solutions such as DVB-H if they provide certainty about technology licensing terms and conditions.
Within Europe, consumers and the industry itself often envisage mobile TV to involve the creation of content specifically designed to be viewed on the mobile phone and a requirement of additional spectrum for delivery. However, there are other options available now and without such additional investment required. Free-to-air broadcasting to mobile devices can be achieved quickly and easily with minimal time and revenue investment from the industry. This has the potential to really jump-start consumer interest as it is offering free and familiar content.
Looking at other mobile technologies, the wider adoption of mobile Internet has proved that to follow a ‘walled garden' approach, in other words restricting consumer's access to their own developed content and removing full choice, has not been conducive to encouraging mass market adoption. Research repeatedly shows that people want ‘the Internet' on their devices, rather than the ‘mobile Internet'. Muted adoption followed much initial hype and consumer uptake did not increase until the industry adapted its mindset to allow true use of Internet on the move and with it, more consumer choice and access to familiar content. This, coupled with changes in the technology and market conditions, made the experience acceptable in terms of quality and cost to the mass consumer market.
The provision of free and familiar content can help to achieve widespread usage, as it did in the case of mobile Internet. Free-to-air mobile TV, providing access to exactly the same content we consume on our televisions, can be made available to encourage consumers to trial the use of the service and become accepting of viewing television content when on the move, whether on mobile phones or other portable devices such as laptops. Consumers have shown interest in mobile TV but have been unwilling to commit to signing up and paying out for a subscription to content they are not familiar with. They have shown a preference for local sports, news and programming. The free-to-air route allows consumers to become comfortable with viewing television content on their mobile devices and making it more likely they will then become receptive to paying for premium content.
In addition to content, other key factors driving take-up of mobile TV involve a successful convergence of standards, infrastructure and spectrum.
Adoption of a new preferred standard can be problematic. It needs to be stable, ubiquitous and easy to implement, and regulation can also be tricky to navigate. It can take years for a technology to mature such that commercial solutions can be effectively developed, deployed and made compatible. And, while we are firmly focused on the digital switchover in Europe, only 12 per cent of the global population will have their analogue broadcast signals turned off by 2012.
Infrastructure, in turn, demands significant investment - base station towers, land on which the towers sit, ability to get content from the broadcasters to the towers and any other quality-of-service mechanisms necessary to get TV content onto the airwaves. 3 Italia is a prime example in that it has spent around £80 million on its own broadcasting network, which covers 75 per cent of the country, and enabling production of its own content for customers. This essentially makes it a media company moving into different areas of expertise. After a year of operation, 800,000 of the available eight million subscribers were using the mobile TV service, but is such an investment needed to create a successful mobile TV market?
A common misconception is that digital networks are the only solution available for mobile TV deployment because analogue networks could not be made mobile. Recent technology advancements have now resulted in mobile analogue capability that provides an alternative to what was, a few years ago, thought a necessity. With digital systems only as strong as their infrastructure deployment and nearest base station, this is of particular interest as it opens up access to a broadcast ecosystem that has been developed over sixty years and is now ubiquitous.
When we investigate all the factors required to make the service a success, the free-to-air model wins out. It leverages existing broadcast ecosystems that enjoy mature, global standards; spectrum that is already allocated; existing broadcast infrastructure; and familiar content. The consumer is rewarded with free mobile access to the live programming that they already view and enjoy on their televisions at home. This is why DVB-T and analogue mobile TV services are gaining significant global momentum so far in 2008, outpacing DVB-H and other digital subscription-based mobile TV networks.
If it as easy as applying technology which has existed for decades, such as the television receiver chip, why have we not seen this made available to mobile devices before now? Much is to do with how that technology was originally designed. It was never made to be mobile. A technology breakthrough was required to deliver the picture quality, battery life and high speed mobility needed to deliver a quality consumer service and therefore positive experience.
A key requirement for free-to-air mobile TV services is that the solution should offer six or more hours of continuous mobile TV viewing time while delivering high picture quality. While common usage patterns to date have shown an average viewing time of 20 minutes, low power consumption for the TV feature is required so as not to disrupt the user's phone charging behaviour, so that the consumer does not have to adapt his or her usual routine. Common usage cases also show that consumers are watching TV while commuting to work or school, so the receiver must be able to maintain reception of a quality service while literally on the move.
Single-chip mobile TV receivers are now available that deliver the necessary sensitivity, ultra-low power consumption and high-speed mobility that let manufacturers, operators and consumers tap into the existing free-to-air ecosystem. There is no further investment required from broadcasters or operators. All that is required is to add a single-chip to mobile devices with minimal resource requirements. Free-to-air mobile TV is now given the opportunity to accelerate beyond the current forecasts and address a truly global market, providing solutions to consumers in regions receiving digital free-to-air TV as well as to the 5.5 billion people not covered by digital TV standards.
Free-to-air mobile TV allows operators to leverage the existing broadcast ecosystem to educate and prepare consumers for the next generation of digital subscription services, once they become more widely available, at zero incremental cost. This provides a cost-effective way for operators to trial mobile TV offerings in different markets, and provides operators and consumers direct and free access to broadcaster content. Additionally, free-to-air mobile TV provides the opportunity for incremental revenue. Viewers of mobile TV are likely to increase their use of voice consumption as a result of calling into the most popular shows. In other parts of the world, operators are successfully using the free-to-air mobile TV feature as a way to attract and retain subscribers, reduce handset subsidies, and explore new revenue models such as targeted advertising and data network services such as SMS. In the long run, a variation of these models may prove to be applicable to the European market as well.
Free-to-air mobile television provides the route to success for the industry. More education is needed to consider free-to-air mobile TV as a lucrative option to boost the uptake of mobile television and set the right foundation to introduce digital and premium made-for-mobile content going forward. This is a cost-efficient technology that is available to introduce mobile TV in an acceptable way to consumers, to acclimatise the market to the services. In the meantime, free-to-air can still prove to be a revenue generator for broadcasters and operators alike, all the while increasing the chances of consumers paying for premium content and accepting digital content once the industry is truly ready to do so.
Weijie Yun is CEO and President of Telegent Systems