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Been there, done that

I recently attended a colloquium for television engineers about new delivery formats, including IPTV and mobile TV. Unlike HDTV, which is seen as evolutionary, these formats are called disruptive because viewing patterns change, and different business models apply.

One of the speakers talked about the result of viewing trials of mobile TV. It appears that although mobile viewing displaces some conventional viewing, some of the time spent watching is additional. People are using the receivers when they are waiting. It could be for a meeting or for public transport, but it is dead time. They are also using it where there is no fixed receiver, such as in bed or in the kitchen.

But haven't we been here before? I remember long ago at school, boys coming in with the new “transistor” radios. The introduction of the portable radio had many parallels with the roll-out of mobile TV. Consumers could listen where they wanted and when they wanted.

The introduction of the portable radio opened new markets for advertisers and created new business opportunities for station owners. Radio was no longer tied to the home or car. Mobile TV presents a similar business opportunity, but with a big advantage not available to radio 40 years ago. Because the mobile receivers are combined with phones, there is a back-channel that can be used for interactivity. Radio used the phone-in for interactivity, but the cell phone built into a mobile TV offers far more: revenue from SMS and the potential of listener demographics.

Forty years ago, radio survived the introduction of portable receivers. It adapted and still thrives today. Television will enthusiastically adopt these disruptive technologies; it just needs the production companies to develop programming that can exploit the advantages of the technology.

Now that spectrum is auctioned to the highest bidder, it has become a scarce resource. Some 3G services offer video, but a few simple calculations show that cells will not support a large number of video users. So with spectrum and infrastructure too expensive for large-scale wireless VOD, affordable mobile TV has to be transmitted as a handful of live channels linear programming, just like conventional network television.

Could it be that just as the soothsayers are claiming that the PVR is killing the advertising-funded model, mobile TV arrives to give it a new and interactive lease of life?

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