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Mobile TV on the move in Blighty

BSkyB's Sky Mobile lets users access TV content and more

LONDON — It’s only January, but already 2006 is shaping up to be the year when TV on mobile phones takes off in Blighty.

Skeptics who reckoned that only eagle-eyed geeks would watch screens the size of a cigarette pack are beginning to revise their opinions.

This is despite wrangling over content rights, how the spoils should be divvied up between producers, broadcasters and mobile operators — plus uncertainties sparked by a lack of frequencies for broadcasting TV over mobiles. And the limitations of 3G technology are reminiscent of pre-broadband days, when www spelled World Wide Wait.

On Jan. 10, Rupert Murdoch-controlled paybox BSkyB launched Sky Mobile, a download service using 3G technology.

For £5 ($8.80) a month, Sky subscribers can access clips from TV shows and other assorted content, including a sports betting service and roundups from Sky Movies and flagship web Sky One.

Two days later, British Telecom announced the findings of a trial on 1,000 London-based users of its BT Movio, a TV-to-go service it hopes to bow this year for roughly $14 a month.

The devices access a handful of webs via digital audio broadcasting — basically digital radio — a point that BT is trumpeting.

“We are doing things very differently than every other mobile TV service, and using technology that is already available throughout the U.K.,” says Emma Lloyd, managing director of BT Movio.

Predictably, the trial found that people liked dipping into news and sports channels while they are commuting.

What BT didn’t spell out is that its system can carry only a handful of channels, and it is unclear which content providers will sign up.

Arguably more encouraging for those hoping to make a killing out of “time kill TV” are last week’s preliminary results from a trial by transmission company Arqiva and O2, Blighty’s biggest mobile phone operator, which suggests U.K. consumers are ready for mobile TV and prepared to pay as much as $17.60 a month for the pleasure.

Last fall, O2 gave 375 residents of Oxford — 60 miles northwest of London — a 16-channel package that included BBC1, ITV1, Channel 4, Sky News, CNN, Discovery and MTV broadcast direct to Nokia mobile handsets using digital video broadcasting (DVB-H).

On average, people spent 23 minutes a time watching TV on the devices. The most-watched genres were news, soaps, music, documentaries and sports. Usage peaked at breakfast, lunchtime and early evening.

Previously it had been assumed that folk would snack on mobile TV while they were commuting or waiting in line for business or trains — or hanging out with friends in a bar.

The Oxford trial suggests people are just as likely to tune in to TV on their handsets when they are at home because they want a personalized viewing experience.

“Broadcast TV for mobile can be a powerful new service that further enables users to personalize their mobile handset so that they can always have the content they want,” says O2’s chief technology officer, Dave Williams.

More data will be available when the trial ends in April.

However, Arqiva mobile topper Dr. Hyacinth Nwana is confident about the future.

“The trial has proved there is a market for mobile broadcasting, and now we’re looking to make it happen with the collaboration of the whole industry,” he says.

O2 and Arqiva are gearing up to lobby Blighty’s communications regulator, Ofcom, because the prospect of getting this service up and running depends on the watchdog making frequencies available.

Without frequencies, “the U.K. will fall behind other key global markets,” warns Nokia topper Mark Selby.

South Korea has already rolled out a similar service, and others are due to start later this year in the U.S. and Finland, with Italy following in 2007.

The U.K. is one of the pioneers of digital TV thanks to services like BSkyB and Freeview.

The coming year looks likely to determine whether Blighty can also make the leap.

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