The more things change, the more they stay the same

This issue's story about the LG HB620T handset, which uses digital signals broadcast for TV, got me looking back to the 1950s. The "pay vs. free" debate already started by this potentially industry-disrupting device isn't a new one. It was already underway when television was in its infancy.

On Oct. 6, 1957, “The New York Times” featured a story titled, "Free TV or Pay-as-You-See? The liveliest controversy in television today is whether the viewer should foot the bill." The story sums up arguments for and against what was then called "toll TV."

Jack Gould wrote, "The Hollywood motion-picture industry has said it believes that toll TV will be the solution to its economic ills arising from free video, the mass movement of millions to the suburbs and the high cost of baby sitters. But exhibitors of films — the theater owners — have said that toll TV threatens to leave them the destitute victims of an outmoded means of distributing Marilyn Monroe."

Change the “Hollywood” to “carriers” and “exhibitors” to “broadcasters” and you could run that story today.

We have the advantage of knowing how that story played out. Toll TV lost out early to the broadcast model. The pay-as-you-see model didn't really return until the advent of pay-per-view.

If the early days of TV had operated by the current mobile TV model, people would have had to subscribe to Admiral's TV program services, only been able to watch programs that Admiral chose to offer and have had to pay for video usage minutes.

Yet despite the history, "toll TV" is the prevailing model for mobile TV. That's because its delivery is tied to a device that has historically been monetized by charging people for how much they use it — the telephone.

We may just be barking up the wrong tree, as EDN senior editor Brian Dipert explained in a March 2008 piece, "Mobile Television: Free And Location-Free."

"Any secondary application that drains the battery and precludes subsequent access to the unit's primary application making and receiving phone calls, for example will likely receive a cool reception by consumers, especially if it's also one that considerably adds to the unit's price tag." Dipert goes on to suggest "alternatives with more focused functions" and "a lengthier list of alternative infrastructure approaches."

LG is pointing the way to just one of them.