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AT&T tests in-car mobile TV

AT&T has completed a soft launch of its new CruiseCast mobile satellite television service to a few potential customers, with plans for a full national launch later this month. The business model, which has been tested in various forms before but never commercially available, is to send audio and video to in-car entertainment systems in the hopes of generating new revenue.

After spending $1299 for the in-vehicle satellite receiver and a $28 a month subscription fee for the video service, CruiseCast will provide 22 channels of video and 20 channels of audio. However, less than 400 retailers, including catalog electronics marketer Crutchfield, have signed on to sell the product. Most are not participating in the current tests.

Initially available channels for the service, according the CruiseCast Web site, will include NBC, Discovery, Animal Planet, MTV, Disney XD, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network Mobile, Nickelodeon, Sci-Fi, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and USA. MusicChoice will provide the 20 audio channels.

AT&T plans to have Avis Budget Group, the rental car company, reselling the service. Avis and Budget vehicles will offer the system for $8.95 per day, or $62.65 per week beginning this summer.

CruiseCast will be broadcast over an Intelsat Ku-band satellite covering the United States and picked up by a mobile antenna developed by RaySat, an AT&T partner in the venture. AT&T is investigating incorporating the antenna into the design of the vehicle’s roof.

Currently, the system is totally dependent on the satellite because there is no terrestrial repeater network. AT&T, however, is investigating the creation of such a network, most likely using the WCS spectrum.

Video is optimized for 7in screens, the most typical size used in auto installations. To protect against signal dropout when in tunnels or when the transmissions are blocked by tall buildings, the system has an internal buffer of about eight minutes. In most cases, this will ensure continuous play.

“AT&T CruiseCast is a significant advancement from what is in the market today — both in terms of technology and channel offerings,” said Winston Guillory, president of RaySat, maker of the antenna.

In fact, AT&T has little actual competition. Sirius Backseat TV, the first such service fully deployed for market, currently offers only three channels of content for about $20 a month. Primarily aimed at children, it offers Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel. Customers must also subscribe to Sirius XM satellite radio.

The Sirius system can be factory-installed in certain Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles. It can also be purchased for separate installation in existing vehicles for about $300.

Other competition is planned. This October, Audiovox is expected to offer MediaFLO’s FLO TV service, the same fare provided by mobile phone companies. Audiovox has a target installed price of about $500 for the receiver. The monthly subscription fee is not yet known. By the end of the year, FLO TV will be available in about 100 U.S. markets.

ICO Global Communications, who last year partnered with Alcatel-Lucent and Delphi, has made deals with several content providers including Discovery Communications and NBC Universal for its ICO mim in-vehicle service. The service is in trials in Las Vegas and Raleigh-Durham, NC. In addition to television, ICO mim delivers interactive navigation and two-way communications to mobile customers.

ICO mim uses the largest commercial satellite launched to date, called ICO G1, which covers the entire United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was launched a year ago from Cape Canaveral, FL.

Finally, there are the U.S. broadcasters, whose Open Mobile Video Coalition eventually promises free programming to mobile users. Of course, equipment will be needed to receive such programming, and so far there is no national infrastructure for common signals. The broadcasters system depends on individual signals from local television stations. The broadcasters are currently testing the service, with few definitive announcements yet made.

All of this mobile television activity comes amidst one of the nation’s worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Much of the planning for these launches was made before the economic situation was known. Some of the launch plans will no doubt change over the year.

With the high entry prices of receiving equipment, the poor economy virtually guarantees a slow startup for what is still a slowly emerging industry. Only time will tell whether there is a market at all for in-vehicle mobile television, but even local broadcasters are hoping to cash in at some point.