Koreans cotton to mobile TV

Satellite version launched by TU Media

Imagine sitting on a train hurtling through the countryside at nearly 200 miles per hour and being able to see your favorite TV show on your phone.

It sounds like sci-fi in the U.S., but in South Korea, it has been possible to watch live TV while on the move for more than a year. The train technology is French, the mobile TV software is Korean. And it is sufficiently smart enough that in-car versions are supposed to shut off at 80kmh in the interests of road safety.

Korea is a proving ground for technology and its business models as the country has two competing derivatives of the same Digital Mobile Broadcasting standard — one delivered by satellite, one by terrestrial based stations.

The satellite version (S-DMB) was launched by TU Media, a company owned by broadcasters and electronics manufacturers. It is sold on a pay TV basis and has attracted more than 700,000 subscribers since May 2005.

Proof that the convenience of being able to watch TV anywhere at any time has real value comes from TU’s ability to charge $13 a month, roughly the same as a monthly cable TV fee in Korea, but for far fewer channels.

DMB-S currently offers 12 video, 26 audio and one data channel. All are available on 40 different devices including mobile phones, receivers for cars and public transport and adaptors that play through laptop computers. But more than 90% of users want to avoid carrying additional hardware and have bought TV-capable phones.

According to Kim Young-bae, vice president of TU, average viewing time is now 55 minutes per day, with an audience that is 60% male. Because of the country’s long commuting habits, there are four primetimes: morning and evening rush hours, lunchtime and mid-evening.

“We expected music channels to be the most popular, but that was not the case. Entertainment and drama are the most watched, with gameshows and news next,” says Kim.

Over at pubcaster MBC there is even more to crow about. Terrestrial service T-DMB was launched in the Seoul metropolitan area in December last year with seven TV nets, 13 radio channels and three data feeds. Company claims 1.4 million terminals, mostly mobile phones, have been sold.

Economic model is different for S-DMB as it is free of charge to anyone who has paid for a phone that is T-DMB equipped. Some 80% of content is simulcast with conventional broadcasting.

Whether the two can exist side by side is moot, and again content is likely to play a part. (TU is planning to launch a pay-per-view movie service soon.)

But it seems that Korean consumers are smart enough to work out the pros and cons of each service.

“There was some initial confusion, but the (phone) retailers have done their job and provided information and education to their clients. This is no longer really an issue,” says Lee.

Seems it is not just the trains that are moving fast.

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