In World Cup Broadcasts to Mobile TV Users, Qualcomm’s FLO TV Misses Bigger Goal—Fervor for World’s Most Popular Sporting Event

[Updated 6/18/10 4:10 pm. See below.] The World Cup soccer tournament that begins today in South Africa ranks as the world’s biggest sporting event in terms of broadcast audience. Alas, if only San Diego-based Qualcomm’s (NASDAQ: QCOM) FLO TV could tap a significant fraction of it.

FLO TV, the Qualcomm subsidiary that provides the broadcast TV infrastructure and service for certain mobile devices, announced that its coverage of the month-long soccer tournament will include a dedicated 24-hour World Cup Channel. AT&T, which offers FLO TV services on certain handsets under its own brand (AT&T Mobile TV), will offer ESPN’s coverage of all 64 World Cup matches. Mobile users also can watch all 64 games on FLO TV Personal Television and Auto Entertainment devices, and FLO TV is broadcasting 56 games on Verizon V Cast mobile TV phones.

But FLO TV is not yet in a position to take advantage of the intense passion for World Cup soccer that exists outside the United States.

The World Cup held in Germany four years ago had a total cumulative television audience of almost 26.3 billion, according to FIFA, the European sponsor otherwise known as Fédération Internationale de Football Association. More than 715 million viewers watched the final match between Italy and France—replete with the infamous head-butting incident by French team captain Zinedine Zidane while the tense overtime match was still tied at 1-1.

[Updated to clarify how FLO TV transmits by satellite to terrestrial broadcast TV infrastructure.] While Qualcomm has laid the groundwork to expand its MediaFLO Technologies in overseas markets—beginning as early as next year in Japan—the mobile broadcast service currently is available in just 112 U.S. media markets and travel corridors. A similar infrastructure would presumably be required before mobile broadcasts could begin foreign markets. In the United States, MediaFLO transmits broadcasts from its San Diego operations center by satellite to Qualcomm’s dedicated terrestrial network of digital mobile TV transmitters.  FLO TV says it serves roughly 200 million points of presence (POPs), but that doesn’t translate into 200 million viewers.

Other smartphone users also will be able to watch World Cup matches, and Bob Tedeschi of The New York Times provides a network-by-network explanation here.

In a statement, FLO TV says: “MediaFLO Technologies has completed successful trials with mobile network operators, content owners, and broadcasters in many international markets including Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the UK. We are in discussions with local companies across APAC, Europe and Latam to commercialize MediaFLO mobile media services. These negotiations take time as many of the markets have not yet made decisions about mobile TV spectrum licensing.”

Still, the bottom line is that soccer fanatics in neither South Africa nor Mexico will be using MediaFLO Technologies when they watch today’s kickoff game between the teams for those two countries—and the same goes for other international audiences.

Comments by Qualcomm Chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs last week at the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD conference also suggest the wireless giant has been developing different strategies for FLO TV. In an interview with the Journal’s Walt Mossberg, Jacobs agreed that FLO TV hasn’t been the hit that Qualcomm had hoped for. “There are people who love it,” Jacobs said, “but the numbers are not nearly what we expected.” The Qualcomm CEO also noted the company may choose to do something else with the 700 MHz frequency that FLO TV uses to broadcast, such as delivering mobile data to devices—which is a hint I’ve heard Qualcomm execs drop previously.

“As Dr. Jacobs said at D8, we are not satisfied with the overall take-up of mobile TV in the US, but we are optimistic about broadcast, mobile video and future FLO services,” FLO TV spokeswoman Mona Klausing says in an email. “At the heart of FLO TV is the network—the world’s highest-quality, dedicated mobile TV network—and the underlying MediaFLO platform for the delivery of mobile media services…Moving beyond mobile TV services, we announced in April that we will be complementing our current live linear video with relevant, on-demand content and new interactive features later this year. We have a series of new device launches planned this year as well so stay tuned for those announcements.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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