By Zoe Smith
Mobile TV, dubbed "mobivision", is the next big thing, according to telephone network operators. And with the findings of the UK’s first full multichannel mobile TV trial due to be released by O2 within the next fortnight, the results look set to be good news for journalists.
"Surprisingly, news was definitely top of what people wanted to see," says Hyacinth Nwana, managing director of Arqiva, the mobile media solutions company which, in conjunction with Nokia and O2, conducted the Oxford trial. Sixteen channels were offered to O2 customers, including the five terrestrial channels, as well as programmes from digital channels such as CNN, Sky News and Sky Sports News.
"When we talked to users it became obvious why news was so popular. News is very timely and contextual to that particular moment. If you could watch it later, then perhaps you may not want to watch it on a mobile device," says Nwana.
"If you’re a broadcaster and you want to get your TV out there, then all of a sudden you have a potential new customer base of millions," says Peter Mercier of MobiTV, a company that provides live mobile TV solutions to media companies including ITN, Bloomberg and CNN. "It doesn’t take too many of those to spend £10 a month to watch video services for you to earn significantly from mobile. The potential for both broadcasters and network operators is enormous."
Mercier believes that, aside from the techno buzz around mobile and audiovisual services in particular, the current fascination with the possibilities of mobile TV make financial and business sense. "There are a lot of companies out there that are looking for new revenue and see mobile as a great opportunity.
The mobile companies have spent a huge amount and now they need something to run on them that will make a return on those networks."
Marginal costs According to Mercier, broadcasters are attracted to mobile TV because the additional cost of providing news services to mobiles is marginal.
Mercier says: "Your guy is sitting there in Baghdad with his flak jacket on filing a report every day. He’s going to be there regardless of whether his show goes on air or not. If you can get some money from people like me distributing his report on mobile, that’s great: it helps pay his wage and keep him in flak jackets."
One example of a pioneering content provider is ITN, which recently won the Best Content Service award at the World Communications Awards.
Despite closing its 24-hour news channel in December, it continues to offer customers mobile phone news bulletins, a service it started in 2003. It currently has 35 people working full time on providing content for mobile phones.
ITN Multimedia managing director Nicholas Wheeler says: "We’re not a broadcaster, we’re a content supplier.
We don’t have a streamed channel on television or elsewhere that we can cross-promote our service on. So our strategy has always been to work with the major operators to get good positioning on their portals and to collaborate with them to make services that people want to see.
"It seemed like a no-brainer to us to get into the market. News is so ideally suited to what mobile phones can deliver. Because news happens all the time and you don’t necessarily wait, in this demanding age, for a lunchtime bulletin or an evening summary, you want content as soon as an event happens so you can keep up to date wherever you are, whatever you’re doing."
BBC World is available on a range of mobile television services outside the UK, but the corporation is still dealing with licence issues in the UK that prevent it from launching mobile services at home.
According to a BBC spokeswoman: "We don’t as yet have a formal strategy on mobile TV. The mobile market is very much a developing market and what the BBC is doing is standing back and watching and waiting to see how that market develops before we decide how we might best play a part in it and do something that is of value to the licence fee payer."
Currently mobile TV is delivered over 3G networks used by the major mobile phone operators. However, growth of the new platform could be restricted by limitations on the number of people a 3G network can broadcast to.
What the future offers is the seamless combination of content transmitted by the existing 3G network and content delivered over new networks that haven’t even been built yet — potential networks which have been tested by Arqiva and BT.
Uncertain timescale How quickly this will happen is the subject of fierce debate. According to Ofcom, which is responsible for distributing the spectrum on which the content will be broadcast, it is difficult to predict the timescale because there are limited amounts of spectrum available.
Arqiva has been using a piece of spectrum which is currently being used for TV broadcasting. "Until we switch over to digital — a process which starts in 2008 and ends in 2012 — we are not able to give any spectrum because it is being used for TV broadcasting. So that might not happen until earliest 2008 and potentially not until 2012," says a spokesperson for Ofcom.
Arqiva’s Nwana remains more hopeful.
"I’m an optimist by nature. I’m hoping that it won’t be the case that we’ll have to wait until switchover before we get the spectrum we need. I think Ofcom realises that switchover will be too late," she says.
And like Nwana, the European Union’s commissioner for information, society and media, Vivian Reding, believes there is an element of urgency.
"I am more and more convinced that we cannot wait until 2012 to deploy new services such as mobile TV on a large scale. We cannot afford to sleep on this."
Glossary of terms MOBIVISION SPEAK
– 3G — short for third generation. Refers to high-speed voice and data networks.
– Spectrum — Airwaves that have data and communications packaged up into them. It is a finite national resource used to communicate wireless signals from A to B.
– DVB-H — Digital Video Broadcasting Handheld. A mobile broadcast technology that allows TV signals to be viewed on mobile devices. Used by Arqiva. Offers good broadcastquality picture, because the screen resolution is of similar quality to VHS
– DAB-IP — Digital Audio Broadcasting Internet Protocol. Used by BT Movio in M25 trial and commercially available later this year.