U.S. Slow to Join Global Wave of Mobile TV Growth

A new study released yesterday says half a billion people around the world are expected to tune in to mobile TV by 2013—a market that is estimated at, oh, $50 billion or so.

But the study’s author told me that in the United States, where Qualcomm’s MediaFlo is the leading technology, the growth of mobile TV is expected to remain sluggish. Among other things, American consumers don’t yet see the value in paying more to be able to tune into TV on the go. “The US hasn’t really latched on to the value of mobile TV so far because it’s constantly seen as an add-on from this a la carte menu of cellular services,” says Jeff Orr, a senior analyst for mobile content with New York-based ABI Research. Orr is the author of ABI’s study, “The Mobile TV Market,” a 72-page market analysis that reviews the key technologies, services, network infrastructure, content, and other elements of the global business.

MediaFlo provides mobile TV service for Verizon Wireless and AT&T cellular networks in the United States. Qualcomm has spent hundreds of millions of dollars expanding its network, which uses the 700 MHz spectrum, and MediaFlo had planned to launch its service in perhaps as many as 12 new cities the day after analog TV broadcasters switched to digital technology on Feb. 17th.

Some analog broadcasters still plan to vacate the 700 MHz spectrum, also known as Channel 55, even though Congress recently approved a four-month delay in the nationwide mandated switchover to all-digital TV broadcasts. President Obama is expected to sign legislation that will extend the deadline until June 12th, giving millions of unprepared TV viewers time to trade in their rabbit ears and rooftop antennas for devices that convert the new digital TV broadcasts into analog signals required by old TVs. But the bill also gave TV stations the option of shutting down their analog signals, creating a patchwork of conflicting signals for MediaFlo to contend with in some cities.

In San Diego, for example, four local TV stations that are currently broadcasting with both analog and digital technology plan to switch off their analog broadcasts next week anyway. Two other stations are likely to continue broadcasting in both analog and digital until June 12, while San Diego’s public television station is expected to go all digital in April. You need a TV program to know who the analog vs. digital players are.

Meanwhile, AT&T has been promoting its Mobile TV service and Verizon is advertising the shows available on its VCast network. But Orr says the carriers have it backwards. The cellular companies naturally want to promote their own brands, but Orr argues that content is king, and carriers like Verizon and AT&T should be promoting Disney’s ESPN and Viacom’s MTV because they are more familiar to consumers. “There needs to be some value proposition,” he says.

Orr predicts growth will be steady in Asia, where demand for mobile TV services has been strongest. Japan and Korea have been using mobile TV services since 2005. Europe lags behind Asia because of a standards battle that only ended a year ago with the European Union’s adoption of the open-source DVB-H standard.

Orr says he sees mobile TV expanding beyond cellular phones into automobiles and small hand-held computers known as mobile Internet devices or MIDs. “Once the content is available and the services launched,” he says, “mobile TV will enable more classes of mobile devices that are ‘natural fits’ for mobile entertainment.”

Except in the United States, where Orr says consumers have been getting mixed signals about mobile TV.

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