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Pocket Watching: Test Drive of AT&T's Mobile TV

10/31/2008 3:41 AM

If you can’t stand to be away from television for even a few minutes, AT&T’s Mobile TV might be just the thing to soothe your media itch. 

The service provides 12 or more live channels from broadcast and cable networks — including a mobile movie channel from Sony Pictures Television — right in the palm of your hand. It’s delivered through the dedicated wireless network built by Qualcomm’s MediaFLO USA subsidiary, which also powers Verizon Wireless’ live-TV service. 

The gee-whiz factor is high. Live mobile TV has been available from other services, such as MobiTV. But the MediaFLO network, which uses a 6-MHz slice in the 700-MHz band, delivers a clean, sharp picture that in my testing in the New York area was hit by very few service interruptions. 

I accessed the service with LG Electronics’ Vu phone, and the live video on its 3-inch, 240-by-400-pixel screen was eminently watchable. 

The lineup includes familiar programs from NBC, CBS, Fox, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, MTV, Comedy Central, ESPN and others. (CNN and Sony’s PIX movie channel are available from AT&T but not Verizon.) A basic program guide was easy and intuitive to navigate, using the Vu’s touch screen. 

In the mood for Godzilla vs. Mothra? That was on PIX at 9 P.M. yesterday. Need to distract the youngsters for a spell? Hand ’em the phone with Nickelodeon, stocked with SpongeBob SquarePants and other faves. AT&T and MediaFLO also offer additional channels for a limited time; while I was checking out the service, Fox’s Fuel TV was in the lineup but will continue only until early November. 

With the election one week to go, it was great to be able to watch the news channels as I commuted on the train each day. I could follow the nauseating gyrations of the financial markets on CNBC walking to work. 

Still — it’s not clear the price of the service is worth the “wow” for anyone but serious TV addicts who happen to be on the road a lot. AT&T charges $15 per month for the basic 12-channel lineup and $30 for a package that includes unlimited access to video clips, Web browsing and data. 

What’s more, the live mobile TV service has the drawback of lacking time-shifting features. The picture quality with MediaFLO is good enough that you can read the crawl on the bottom of CNN, but when I wanted to rewind it to see what had just scrolled off I was out of luck. 

Also, there’s no on-demand content available through the MediaFLO service — indeed, its presentation of traditional linear TV programming runs counter to the notion that shorter, "snackable" chunks are what mobile users want. AT&T does, however, separately offer short video clips from ESPN, Weather Channel, Disney Channel and others. 

Otherwise, I had only a few quibbles. For one thing, the volume on the Vu phone didn’t turn up loud enough (at least for my ears), and the audio was easily drowned out by Manhattan jackhammers. 

But really, how much out-of-home downtime does the average Joe or Jill have that could be occupied with television? Note that most people in the U.S. drive to work instead of taking mass transit. 

If mobile TV were included as part of a regular wireless plan, especially if it were MediaFLO’s fairly high-quality service, I could find reasons to watch it. As an extra cost, though, I can bear to wait until I get home to catch the latest episode of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.

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At a Glance: AT&T Mobile TV

Description: 12 live channels provided through Qualcomm’s MediaFLO USA unit
Availability: 58 markets including Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Channels: CBS Mobile, CNN Mobile, ESPN Mobile TV, Fox Mobile, Fox News, NBC 2Go, CNBC, MSNBC, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Sony’s Pix
Price: $15 per month for Mobile TV Basic (linear channels only); $30 per month for Mobile TV Plus (linear channels plus unlimited video clips, Web browsing and data)
Device reviewed: LG Electronics’ Vu touch-screen phone ($99.99 with two-year contract after a $50 rebate)
Dimensions: 4.25 x 2.16 x 0.51 inches
Battery: Up to 3 hours talk time / TV viewing; 10.5 days standby time 

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