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United States lags behind the rest of the world in mobile TV adoption

When South Korea plays Greece this weekend in its World Cup soccer opener in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, many fans will follow a live broadcast of the match on their mobile phones.

In South Korea, free-to-air mobile TV is now five years old. According to the country’s broadcasters, 27 million people — 56 percent of the population — watch regularly.

While South Koreans are the world leaders in mobile TV viewing, the technology is also catching on in China, Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Latin America, where 80 million people now have mobile phones that can receive free, live TV broadcasts.

At least 40 million people are watching live TV this year on mobile devices, according to Anna Maxbauer, an analyst at IMS Research in Austin, TX. Most live in emerging markets where operators, which prefer to sell TV programming for a fee through their wireless networks, do not control the sale of handsets.

Indeed, free mobile video viewing is fairly common just about everywhere except the United States and Europe, where operator resistance and a variety of conflicting technical standards and program licensing hurdles have kept the technology out of the global mainstream.

In South Korea, people watch free digital terrestrial broadcasts on mobile handsets and 2 million pay to subscribe to satellite programming, according to Korean broadcasters. The typical screen made by Samsung is a 3in diagonal. Batteries support three to six hours of viewing. In Korea, free mobile TV broadcasts are interspersed with ads.

“In the markets where people use this, we have found that viewing tends to be pretty high,” said Diana Jovin, a vice president for corporate marketing and business development at Telegent Systems, a mobile TV chipmaker.

Telegent is shipping about 750,000 chips each month to handset makers, most designed for viewing analog broadcasts in markets like Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Russia, Nigeria, Thailand, Egypt and China. Brazil is one of Telegent’s biggest markets.

In the United States and Europe, broadcasters and wireless operators have been slow to embrace mobile television technology. Those operators control what technology goes into handsets. A major hurdle to free-to-air broadcasting in the United States is, ironically, that it is free. That offers no incentive to operators focused on raising revenue per customer.

“Ask anybody if they want to watch free TV on their phone. Everybody is going to want to say sure,” said Jim Oehlerking, the senior director for mobile TV business development at Motorola. “The challenge is getting the mobile media marketplace to the point where content owners, carriers and broadcasters work out a business model.”

In April, at the NAB Show, 12 U.S. broadcasters and television content owners including Fox, NBC, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst and Cox Media, formed a joint venture to pool their broadcasting spectrum and eventually deliver mobile TV to 150 million people. That effort, however, is in its initial stages and no deadlines have been set for adoption.

Last month, Sprint and nine broadcasters in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area began a four-month trial that will broadcast programming to mobile phones, netbook computers and portable DVD players made by Samsung, LG Electronics and Dell.

Last week, Detroit-based digital television stations WDIV (NBC affiliate) and WXYZ (ABC station) went live on the air with a mobile DTV signal, based on the ATSC A/153 standard, to enable automakers to test in-car entertainment systems that can receive the local broadcast signals in moving vehicles.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition, organizer of these U.S.-based events, is hopeful consumers will take to the technology. To date, no major U.S. wireless carrier has said it would carry the broadcasters’ signals, although Sprint has supported a few trials, such as the one in Washington, D.C.