Mobile television is a tricky proposition. While broadcasters are close to formalizing a technology standard, they don’t have control of mobile phones. For now, they are talking with mobile carriers, creating test projects and searching for a long-term business model for mobile technology.
In spite of the challenges, one company has been more aggressive than others. News Over Wireless, a Raleigh, NC, firm on the cutting edge of mobile video, continues to push the envelope of what’s possible today. It’s owned by CBC New Media Group, a subsidiary of Capital Broadcasting, and headed by one of broadcasting’s genuine visionaries Jim Goodmon.
Goodmon and his family are veteran risk takers among broadcasters. In 2000, he started File Forward, a service to send media files over satellite. In 2001, his station WRAL-TV became the nation’s first all-digital news operation — presenting news in HD long before it was cool.
In 2004, the company launched the first local TV Java application for mobile phones. It also deployed the first mobile video channel devoted to a network of local TV stations — My Local TV — in 2006.
In 2008, WRAL, along with CBC Media Group, began the first mobile television field tests for the new standard proposed by the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a group made up of about 800 television stations. This summer, it will launch mobile television services to buses in North Carolina (after a successful test run in April). In January, WRAL became the first local TV station in the nation to offer its own iPhone application.
While many broadcasters have doubts about the viability of mobile broadcast technologies, News Over Wireless — also called NOW — doesn’t seem to be struggling for a business model. Rather than wait for a technology system to fully develop, NOW goes where the people are.
This explains NOW’s interest in Apple’s popular iPhone. In the first three weeks after offering a free iPhone application in Apple’s App Store, WRAL entered Apple’s Top 10 of most downloaded free news applications. It joins other major brands such as the “New York Times,” ABC News and “USA TODAY” on Apple’s most desired list. The App Store currently has more than 25,000 paid and free applications available for download.
The iPhone application, created by NOW, takes advantage of the iPhone’s multitouch interface and features local news, video, weather forecasts and traffic images from WRAL. It didn’t matter to NOW that the television signal travels over the Internet — the iPhone user doesn’t know the difference.
Success has been slow but steady. Last month, NOW signed LIN TV’s 27 stations to distribute news and video to mobile users in 17 markets. LIN will brand the iPhone application with each of its own station’s logos. Like many others, LIN is searching for a new revenue stream to move its content to a new platform.
At the beginning of 2009, NOW partnered with 114 local and national media companies to provide custom mobile applications and services delivering news, entertainment and information to mobile phone users. It is now a provider of advertising-supported mobile Web sites, subscription-based premium applications and video channels.
NOW is offering a “white label” version of iPhone application to individual stations. Eight stations now offer the application. As of last month, Apple reported that it sold 3.8 million iPhones in the previous three-month period. A total of 17 million iPhones have been sold.
While NOW and the Goodmon family are major supporters of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, there are currently no commercially available devices that can receive broadcast signals. At NAB in April, Samsung and LG Electronics showed prototype phones. However, in order for the phones to reach the public, the U.S. mobile carriers must purchase and agree to subsidize them. The public then buys the phone from the carrier packaged with its mobile service.
Currently, three of the nation’s top four mobile services already offer their own mobile television from QUALCOMM’s MediaFLO and MobiTV. They charge about $15 a month for the optional TV service. Until the broadcasters figure a way around this, they will be on the margins of mobile television.
In the meantime, News Over Wireless will go where it can to find viewers. With more than 145 million mobile media customers and 12 million now using video, the market is now too large to ignore. Advertisers demand it.