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Mobile TV searches for breakthrough

Enticing devices and services can't shake lingering concerns

The history of mobile television has been rocky at best. While the allure of streaming live network programming to viewers over their handheld devices is undeniable, delivering that content in ways that don’t abrogate rights agreements and can somehow be monetized has proven mercurial. Loudly trumpeted efforts have fallen short, victims of poor design decisions, overpriced services and/or confusion about the target audience.

While the idea of watching television on a 3.5″ screen might not make sense to anyone in their mid-30s or older, mobile TV is a logical extension of how Generation Me has grown up with entertainment. It’s also a way for broadcasters to reclaim some of the younger viewers who increasingly spend free time multitasking with their handheld devices and may be staying away from TV sets entirely.

The backers of mobile TV are, if nothing else, persistent. They’re also diverse, ranging from media mogul Barry Diller and Cox Television to the Scripps Television Station Group and PBS. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the topic of mobile TV might not have been front and center, but it was certainly being buzzed about among attendees. Now, recent advances in the field have some wondering if it is finally ready to come of age — and just as important, if it will clear the legal obstacles it’s bound to face.

The initiative got a big push recently with the commercial launch of Mobile TV, a Web and mobile service that lets viewers watch live programming from ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as 25 cable channels including CNN, ESPN, MTV, USA and AMC.

Currently live in 50 markets, Mobile TV offers some 130 stations to viewers, depending on their location. The free service is available on many Android smartphones and tablets, but notably does not work on iOS devices such as the iPhone. (The programs are livestreamed via a Website, which uses a Flash media player — something Apple products do not support. The site asks the viewer’s zip code, so as to provide local network channels.)

Competing service Dyle mobile TV has a slightly smaller offering (90 stations in 35 markets), but is run by a partnership that includes Fox, NBC, Cox Media Group, E.W. Scripps Co., Gannett Broadcasting and Hearst Television. The free service is built into the Samsung Galaxy S Lightray. However, TV antenna attachments for iOS devices are expected to go on sale this fall, which will make the service available to iPhone and iPad users. Pricing for those attachments has not yet been announced, but it not expected to exceed $150.

Dyle’s service runs on a separate broadcast network spectrum, so it doesn’t take a bite out of cellular data allowances. Many of the other new services are following this pattern as well to bypass data caps.

“New opportunities to extend video watching beyond the living room … point out the unique benefits for broadcast spectrum, and resolve challenges in our wireless ‘data-cap’ world,” read a statement from Salil Dalvi and Erik Moreno, co-general managers of Mobile Content Venture.

The idea might be consumer-friendly, but not every mobile TV company is being embraced so warmly. Aereo, which broadcasts exclusively in New York City and is backed by Diller, has been tied up in legal fights since it was first announced, with the networks arguing that the newbie had failed to acquire licenses to deliver their broadcasts over the air. They’re particularly upset with Aereo’s option to save or record programs for later viewing.

The service charges users $80 per year — or up to $12 per month for usage and access to the DVR functionality. Technologically, the company has taken a different path than its competitors: Several large antenna arrays are set up in Brooklyn, each filled with thousands of mini-TV antennas (which fit on the tip of your finger). Each of those arrays can receive local over-the-air TV broadcasts. Each Aereo user is assigned his or her own individual mini-antenna.

In July, Aereo scored a key victory when a federal judge refused to block the service at the request of NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, Fox and other content providers. The decision is being appealed.

Cable and satellite companies are still largely opposed to mobile TV broadcasts, as they circumvent traditional outlets among a growing segment of the population. These traditional distributors — mostly cable and satellite companies — remain largely opposed to mobile TV broadcasts, which they feel can carve away a growing, younger, segment of the population.

“Anyone under 30 gets (the idea of mobile TV) immediately,” says P.J. McNealy, CEO and founder of Digital World Research. “They’re used to consumer content on smaller screens. They discover content — like music, movies and TV shows — via YouTube. They’re very familiar with the (miniscreen) experience.”

The under-30s are the audience being chased by the Mobile500 Alliance, a consortium of station owners who believe in the mobile television vision.

“We are keenly focused on delivering broadcast television to mobile devices so consumers have television when they want it, and where they want it,” says Colleen Brown, who chairs the Mobile500 Alliance board of directors, and is also president and CEO of Fisher Communications.

Mobile TV faces challenges beyond the networks and wooing an audience, though. There are several technological hurdles in its way as well.

Bandwidth, an early challenge, is one that’s quickly being overcome, thanks to the rapid spread of LTE/4G networks. But smartphones and tablets must also be upgraded, with faster processors, among other things, before mobile TV becomes commonplace. Memory capacity isn’t a big concern, since the industry is a long way from DVRing shows on mobile devices, and cloud-based storage is the likely route for that anyway. But streaming media quickly devours the life of batteries that run today’s mobile devices.

While the future might seem promising for mobile TV, it’s important to note the industry has seemingly been on the cusp before. Qualcomm launched FLO TV in 2009, with big plans that included a mobile personal viewing device as well as a presence in cars — all this with the support of CBS, NBC, ESPN and CNN, among others.

Consumers weren’t interested in a $250 dedicated viewing device, though, especially one that came with a $9 monthly fee (and a three-year contract). A year later, Qualcomm pulled the plug on the system.

“It’s a fit and start because consumers want entertainment. They (also) want sports and they want local,” McNealy says. “The infrastructure for delivering all that technically is already out there, but we’re not (yet) at a point where people are streaming (onto) their iPhones.”

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