OMVC Mobile TV Initiative Pushes on as FLO TV Founders

Regular local broadcasts over mobile TV are coming on special devices by the end of 2010 and should reach phones within the next few years, backers of a nationwide U.S. initiative said on Thursday at the CTIA Enterprise & Applications show in San Francisco.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a group that represents more than 875 local TV stations, says it has lined up more than 70 stations across the country to broadcast over a portion of their existing frequencies using a standards-based system designed for mobile reception. An LG Electronics DVD player that works with the system is set to ship in the next few weeks for US$249, said OMVC spokesman Dave Arland. A variety of USB dongles for laptops, and a dedicated handheld receiver with Wi-Fi, will ship in time for the end-of-year holidays, he said.

The OMVC's system is focused on TV stations broadcasting their regular programming to mobile devices rather than putting together a special lineup of shows specifically for mobile viewing.

In trials in Washington, D.C., this year, consumers have embraced this approach because it makes it more convenient to see the kind of TV they already watch, the OMVC said. In particular, they liked watching local TV, the group said. OMVC has finished a market trial there using a prototype cell phone and is conducting tests with other devices, including a prototype netbook from Dell.

Results from the cell-phone trial, disclosed this week, show that about 60 percent of users watched while traveling and 42 percent watched while at work or school. By far the most viewing took place weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., according to Glen Friedman of Rentrak, a research company that helped to gather the statistics. Local news was the most-watched type of programming, followed by reality shows and entertainment news. The 150 participants in the test had access to 23 channels from nine broadcasters. About 63 percent used the service on a daily basis.

The group presented its vision just two days after Qualcomm's mobile TV division suspended sales of phones and other devices for its U.S. FLO TV service. Qualcomm reiterated that it is studying alternative uses for the extensive network of broadcast facilities it built over the past several years on former TV channels. Qualcomm has sold FLO TV on its own and through operators including AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The service offers a handful of national channels, such as CNBC, MTV, Comedy Central and ESPN Mobile TV. Monthly rates start around US$10.

OMVC members praised Qualcomm as a pioneer but said its "out of band" approach to mobile TV was expensive to carry out. Qualcomm took on the burden of both building the network and getting the word out about FLO TV, in a field that was new to the company, they said. By contrast, the OMVC approach allows local stations to extend their existing advertising-based business model and to publicize mobile TV through their existing broadcasts, said Anne Schelle, OMVC's executive director.

In addition, FLO TV missed the key ingredient of mobile TV, said Sam Matheny, general manager of News Over Wireless at CBC New Media Group, a division of TV station group Capitol Broadcasting.

"The biggest single flaw, in my opinion, is that they had no local programming," Matheny said. "They ignored people's viewing habits." For example, citing Pew Research, he said 78 percent of U.S. residents go to local TV stations for news.

Local news proved the most popular type of programming on the phone during the Washington trial, according to OMVC. While consumers can easily find national news on the Web, local news is harder to get online, Schelle said.

TV stations in several markets have already invested in the equipment needed for mobile TV. But the system also requires client devices to have special radios and external antennas. LG's DVD player, coming to retail stores soon, will be the first device commercially sold for the service. The USB dongles, which are a bit larger than thumb drives and have antennas, will cost about $100. Another device, the Tivizen, is a standalone unit with a receiver and retractable antenna. It sends the digital TV signal to other devices via Wi-Fi. Made by South Korean manufacturer Valups, it was announced at CES under the name Tivit.

Some consumers complained about the antennas, which are several inches long when extended, Arland said. He believes manufacturers eventually will be able to build a good enough TV antenna into devices.

In the first market trial in Washington, consumers used a modified Samsung Moment phone, but there are no other handsets for the system other than this prototype. Dell's netbook with built-in mobile TV is also a prototype. Matheny of CBC said device makers and carriers have an interest in providing for mobile TV on their handsets because consumers will flock to phones that offer the service. "It's free, over-the-air, broadcast TV," Matheny said.

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