Mixed reception

Proclaimed as the 'next big thing' in terms of broadcast delivery, mobile TV is struggling to gain traction.
Analysis, Delivery & Transmission
Analysis, Delivery & Transmission


Proclaimed by many as the 'next big thing' in terms of broadcast service delivery, mobile TV is struggling to gain traction in established markets.

As of early-2008, mobile TV services are a reality worldwide. Vincent Poulbere, a telecoms analyst at market research firm, Ovum, cites figures released by Sweden's Ericsson which estimate that at present there are more than 170 mobile TV services available across the globe, the majority of which are deployed over cellular networks.

"Media brands will find themselves compromised commercially if they rely too heavily on network operators to distribute their content. They [telcos] are often too greedy for their own good."

A recent study published by US market-intelligence firm ABI Research suggests that the number of mobile TV subscribers worldwide will grow to 462 million by 2012, driven largely by the expansion of 3G network services.

The study also notes that the Asia-Pacific region is leading the world in terms of mobile TV penetration, with 38 million subscribers accessing services by the end of Q3, 2007.

The proliferation of 3G networks combined with subscriber trends in the GCC market indicates that the region will also prove a major market for mobile TV services.

Mohammed al-Ghanim, director-general of the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), recently announced that the TRA had commissioned a consultant to advise it on licensing issues, with a final report expected towards the end of this month.

Exactly what issues the consultant will examine also remain unknown as a TRA spokesman declined to comment when approached by Digital Broadcast. The licence is expected to be awarded later this year, with al-Ghanim noting that it was still too early to estimate a commercial launch date at the time of press.

Little other definitive information has entered the public domain, although speculation from within the industry points toward a launch six months to a year after the licence is awarded.

More notably, sources indicate that the TRA is unlikely to favour one UAE operator over another when issuing the mobile TV licence.

Well-placed sources inside the UAE telecoms industry indicate the country's broadcast-mobile-TV licence is likely to be granted to an independent operator that will in turn lease spectrum to the country's two telcos. Although none of the sources would be drawn on how much the concession might be valued at.

Any prospective broadcasters bidding for the licence will almost certainly have to leverage the customer-service and billing expertise of one, if not both, of the country's 'cellcos', according to sources.

"The broadcast market is a very different commercial beast to the telecommunications sector," one source said.

"Mobile customers expect to be looked after in terms of service support, and that's what an operator can provide."

Such a scenario is not without precedent and has exposed a degree of enmity between the parties involved.

The decision by Germany's Association of State Media Authorities to approve Mobile 3.0, a joint venture between MFD (a German Mobile TV wholesaler) and publishing house Neva Media, as the country's mobile TV operator, raised the ire of the country's main telcos.

The decision prompted a Vodafone Germany spokesperson to bitterly remark: "This decision has thrown the future of DVB-H in Germany into doubt".

At present there is a lack of consensus on how content providers and broadcasters can make mobile television a propelling proposition especially in a fragmented broadcast market such as the Middle East.

Control of advertising revenues has naturally become a central dispute for players involved in developing mobile TV services, given the potential the technology offers in terms of generating new ad-funded business models.

Toby Downes, head of marketing at U-Turn Media, a company that operates Dubai TV's live streaming mobile portal in four countries across the Middle East, warns that subscriber uptake of mobile TV could be hindered by the archaic business models employed by network operators.

"Never before have media companies been so restricted [than on the mobile channel]," he maintains.

Downes also adds network operators are too eager to offset declining voice ARPUs to "incentivise" subscribers.

By distributing their content via a white-label off-portal platform - i.e. independently of network operators - they can leverage their brand equity to maintain subscriber loyalty, according to Downes.

He adds that media companies used to relying on advertising revenues to supplement their cost-control and revenues streams will suffer by teaming with network operators which perceive mobile TV simply as a means of developing new revenue streams.

"Media brands will find themselves compromised commercially if they rely too heavily on network operators to distribute their content. They [telcos] are often too greedy for their own good," says Downes.

Such a prospect was not lost on delegates at the recent Mobile World Congress 2008 staged in Barcelona. Many warned that unless a serious change of attitude was adopted by network operators towards the sharing of revenues generated by mobile content and applications services, they risked becoming a 'dumb pipe' used to distribute mobile content.

While mobile TV was not among the top headlines written at this year's event, it was identified as an important factor in driving the adoption of mobile multimedia services in the mass-market.

"Technology is not what matters: it's services, it's applications, it's experiences," declared Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin during his keynote address at the conference.

"We must not allow ourselves to become bit pipes and let somebody else do the services work."

However, Patrick Bossert, lead telecoms and media analyst at customer care and billing company, Convergys, argues that emerging market operators can avoid a situation where their networks become a 'dumb pipe' that simply distributes mobile content, by redefining themselves as 'content retailers'.

"Network operators are getting creative with their business models. By bundling content offerings and services, operators can position themselves to gain a larger share of the revenue generated by mobile content and data services," he says.

Bossert also contends the introduction of new competition in many emerging markets is encouraging network operators to take note of this trend and act upon it.

"New market entrants are starting to introduce such strategies as they are looking to differentiate themselves and the incumbent operators are starting to take note of this and act," he explains.

However the region's top telco players decide to implement their respective mobile TV services, if they cannot deliver a service that is reliable and boasts quality content at an affordable price point, their efforts will ultimately prove futile.

The results of a recent M:Metrics survey of 34,000 mobile subscribers in Europe and North America pointed to mixed fortunes for mobile TV services in general.

While the sector achieved 36% year-on-year subscriber growth in 2007, a further 64% of existing subscribers cancelled their contracts, citing poor service delivery.

The lacklustre performance of mobile TV services is further compounded by the plethora of standards being released to market.

In addition to Qualcomm's MediaFLO, which is the dominant standard in North America, and DVB-H, which is the favoured standard of the European Union member states, there's a range of emerging technical standards jostling for market share.

The recent announcement by UK carriers Orange and T-Mobile that they intend to jointly pilot a new broadcast-mobile-TV technology that uses existing cellular spectrum casts a shadow over more-established methods of broadcasting TV to phones.

The system, dubbed TDTV by its creator, NextWave, cuts deployment costs by using spare capacity on an operators' 3G network, ensuring an advantage over established standards.

Telegent Systems, a US-based chipset manufacturer, has also entered the fold.

The company recently announced that it has shipped five million units of its free-to-air mobile TV receiver since its launch in Q1, 2007.

Once embedded in a mobile device, the technology effectively transforms it into a television receiver, as well as a mobile phone, which could potentially seal off broadcasters from claiming other potential revenue streams, such as targeted advertising streamed to handsets.

Subscriber dissatisfaction with mobile TV services often relates to the fact that as a high-bandwidth service, quality and reliability has suffered from a lack of bandwidth on carrier networks coupled with the increasing number of mobile users.

Furthermore, the majority of mobile devices available on the market remain incapable of displaying these video streams in high resolution.

Industry commentators do however anticipate that the advanced network infrastructure and prevalence of 3G-enabled handsets in the GCC region could mean that things play out differently across the Gulf.

Sources consulted by Digital Broadcast also indicate that the UAE telecoms regulator will take the cue of the European Union states and adopt the DVB-H standard.

A six-month DVB-H trial, costing US$2 million, was recently conducted by UAE-operator du and Tecom Investments - the company that owns Middle East broadcasting hub Dubai Media City Free Zone.

The results of the study have been kept under wraps, though local media reports indicate that, as a result of the findings - which were recently discussed at a closed-door Tecom Investments presentation - the DVB-H standard will receive the go-ahead from the UAE TRA.

With so many variables the business case for mobile TV remains unclear for all concerned.

However, with the backing of the world's leading handset manufacturer Nokia, and rumoured regulator-backing, the DVB-H standard looks set to edge-out rival technologies as the dominant mobile TV platform in the Middle East.

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