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When the people in the know are the last to know

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the world’s largest networking event for entrepreneurs — past, present and aspirational. TiEcon, the annual conference of The Indus Entrepreneurs, is a vast event covering everything from where venture capitalists are investing now to such business nitty-gritty as managing cash flow.

To see what the tech and investment cognoscenti were thinking about wireless, I checked in at a session called "Wireless: Where are VCs investing?"

Let me give you a clue; it’s not in mobile TV. But the panel did have one important maxim for entrepreneurial hopefuls: In the add-on mobile applications and services realm, the app store distribution model is king. Mass-market success happens when there is a direct route to the end user. If you're forced to reach your customer through an intermediary, well, find another business.

Not one panelist appeared to get the full implication of this. No one — not even in the wildest flights of blue sky, outside the box, industry-disrupting, paradigm-shifting thunderbolt thinking — considered mobile content showing up by some agency other than a cell phone carrier or a WiFi network, which might be rational if we didn't have a century of history with a medium we call "broadcasting."

Moderating this blue-ribbon panel was Derek Kerton, principal of the Kerton Group. The consulting company describes itself as "built by expert telecom consultants with a razor-sharp focus in wireless telecom," with a finger on the pulse of "every aspect of the wireless value chain — from consumer to enterprise, content to applications, mobile devices to wireless infrastructure and short-range to wide-area technologies."

The panel's blinkered perspective pointed out what might mobile TV's biggest challenge.

Mobile TV is the latest evolution of personal entertainment, something that began Nov. 2, 1920, when Frank Conrad launched the first commercial radio station, KDKA, and reported the Harding-Cox presidential election results before the newspapers.

But while radio and, later, television, manufacturers made devices specifically for radio listening and TV watching and sold them directly to end users, you watch on a device that is first and foremost something else — primarily a telephone, with media/music players and PCs running a distant second and third. While that receiver is very smart, with plenty of functionality having nothing to do with making voice calls, it remains a device that is regulated, marketed, purchased and understood.

And the telephony industry leopard — in all its incarnations including wired, cell, VoIP, etc. — does not change its spots. Controlling and charging for that customer access, preferably by the minute, butters the telephony bread.

Imagine if, back when television was young, the telephone company controlled content distribution for the new medium and charged both a subscription fee and for each minute of viewing time. It's a safe bet there'd be no “I Love Lucy”or Army-McCarthy hearings (the "content" that caused my parents to sign over a month's income to the local Admiral dealer). We'd still be sitting around the crystal set, listening to “The Radio Homemaker's Club” and “Amos 'n' Andy.”

It's not accidental that Asia, where people buy wireless service from a different business than the one they buy the handset from, leads the world in mobile TV viewing. Asia also proves the point that people like TV — anywhere and everywhere.

For mobile TV to take off in North America, something more has to happen than simply rolling out a new standard for free-to-air mobile TV broadcasting. After all, if you could buy a U.S. handset equipped with a Telegent analog TV chip, you could be watching mobile TV right now.

It's possible that the next few years will change in the way we buy handsets — perhaps driven by increasingly lower prices for smarter handsets. But with unlocked phones currently retailing for more than $300, don't hold your breath.

The iPod/personal media player model may be a more promising bet, especially for a generation with permanent earbud implants. Not because it's cheaper, although video/MP3 players can now easily be had for less than $80, but because people perceive the device differently. Millions who wouldn't spend $300 for a phone fork out for the latest iPod without blinking an eye.

Another opportunity is the netbook/ultra-mini laptop. With prices on these plunging (a Dell Inspirion Mini 9 retails for less than an unlocked Palm Centro) and mobile TV tuner solutions heading for the $5 threshold for wide adoption by PC manufacturers, and players like Telegent and Mirics actively promoting PC MoTV, this avenue has promise.

Neither PMPs nor netbooks are "just TV," but many of us already carry one around. Plus, we buy them on their own merits, not from the companies we buy music downloads or Internet access from.

In 1950 you couldn't buy an appliance called a "telephone" from anybody but Ma Bell. By 1970, we were buying telephones at K-Mart. Twenty years from now, buying a mobile TV "appliance" from a phone company will perhaps seem just as strange.

But don't expect the service providers to roll over soon. As in the golden age of TV cigarette commercials, they’d rather fight than switch.

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