FLO TV's Solo Act

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Qualcomm’s original strategy for FLO TV (the mobile TV services unit it used to call MediaFLO) was to partner with mobile-phone services — i.e., Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

The thinking was, consumers wouldn’t want to carry around a separate device just for watching mobile TV. Better to bake television into a phone, rather than force consumers to buy a pocket-sized video device. Plus, people tend to take their mobile phones with them everywhere, increasing the likelihood they’d tune in.

Well, Qualcomm is now going to test the standalone-device theory, with the FLO TV Personal Television (list price: $250). The lineup includes a cross-section of mobile-specific cable and broadcast linear channels, including CNBC, Comedy Central, MSNBC, MTV, NBC, NBC 2Go, NBC News, NBC Sports and Nickelodeon.

The device, announced at this week’s CTIA show in San Diego, is slated to go on sale “this holiday season at leading retailers across the country,” according to Qualcomm. The 5-ounce device has a battery life of 5 hours of TV viewing and includes a built-in stand.

Subscription plans start at $8.99 per month, an option that requires a three-year prepaid contract (a total of $324). Will you pay a grand total of $574 to watch TV on a 3.5-inch screen?

In its announcement, Qualcomm cited one of those super-optimistic analyst forecasts: “Market research firm TeleAnalytics projects that the broadcast mobile TV market will reach $2.8 billion and serve 50 million users in North American by 2013.” That’s nearly the number of Americans who currently lack health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I’m still skeptical that the mobile pay-TV market — whether it’s directly from Qualcomm, or through Verizon or AT&T — will take off in such a massive way, even after the recession recedes. Note that FLO TV lacks any on-demand content, which out of the gate puts it at a disadvantage compared with iPhones or iPods, which may be the most widely used mobile-video devices today (see Pocket Watching: Test Drive of AT&T’s Mobile TV).

I can see FLO TV’s Personal Television device being a hit with, say, security guards. But are there enough moments in the day for the ordinary person to find this of value?

Qualcomm suggests the following use cases: “Whether you’re commuting, waiting for your child to finish practice, or you are just an on-the-go active person, as a FLO TV subscriber you’ll have immediate access to news, sports and entertainment content at your fingertips wherever you go.”

To me, FLO TV’s price tag makes it a luxury item for people who can’t bear to tear themselves away from the tube.