Video clearly is on the move. A handful of fledgling providers are now in the mobile market, with either live telecasts or video-on-demand content, delivered largely to cell phones, but also to personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other handheld devices.
As components of technology platforms shrink in size, what had been unthinkable a few short years ago — watching TV on a cell phone — has now become feasible.
Idetic Inc. unit MobiTV counts more than 300,000 subscribers to its subscription video service, launched last year. MobiTV is available on Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless and Midwest Wireless cell phones. It also programs a separate Sprint TV service for Sprint Corp.
Earlier this year, Verizon Wireless debuted its new V Cast multimedia service. Video content from a half-dozen cable networks was the key component of the $15-per-month offering.
And SmartVideo Technologies is assembling traditional TV content for its mobile video service, built for higher-end cell phones and PDAs.
MobiTV chief operating officer Paul Scanlan said the market is in its early stages. But with more high-frame-rate phones debuting later this year, “We’ll see an acceleration of the subscriber adoption curve,” said Scanlan. “And we will see more carriers launching.”
MobiTV offers more than 20 channels of service, including fare from MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Mobile, Discovery, TLC, ABC News Now, Fox Sports, College Sports Television, Vegas Sports, Vegas Scoreline, three California Music Channels, Comedy Time, Fashion TV, CNET, Discovery Kids, ToonWorld, Discovery en Español, C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2, The Weather Channel and Major League Baseball.
Sprint and Cingular sell the package for $9.99 a month, while Midwest Wireless charges $8.59 a month. The product is available on high-frame-rate phones (8 to 15 frames per second) from LG Electronics, Motorola Inc., Nokia Corp., Samsung Consumer Electronics and Sanyo North America Corp.
Audiovox Corp., LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sanyo and Sony Ericsson also make standard frame-rate phones that can receive the service. The frames there tend to be in the 1 to 2 frames per second.
While some observers say those frame rates make video nothing more than a glorified slide show, Scanlan said MobiTV users understand what they are getting and aren’t all that underwhelmed. “Subscribers tend to be highly satisfied,” he said. “They are not comparing it to TV.”
And in many cases, he said, “the quality of audio is more important than frame rate.”
“Live TV is the draw; that’s the unique thing,” he said, adding that shorter content segments are perfect for the medium.
“It’s like TV snacking,” he said. “People tune in for a short duration.”
That makes news and sports highlights perfect forms of content. MobiTV has also added original comedy clips and music videos. And originally produced content also is making its way to the platform, as is the case with NBC Mobile’s short news segments built for the wireless platform.
MC DELIVERS NETS
MobiTV gets linear cable-network signals from the Comcast Media Center in Denver. “We’re pulling signals from the CMC,” he said. “We have our own boxes there and encode signals for delivery to our system.”
MobiTV aggregates content in Virginia, then sends the signals out across the national cellular networks of both Sprint and Cingular. When a consumer switches on their phone’s MobiTV service, a signal is sent through the network to MobiTV’s front-end management server in Virginia, which acts as a headend to send out any channel a subscriber might tune in.
MobiTV also programs Sprint TV, a largely VOD-based service of several hundred clips which has just recently added live content from Fox News Channel.
“We host and manage it,” Scanlan said. “We do the ingestion and use the same transport plant. We have a network-operations center in Berkeley (Calif.) where we monitor everything.”
Average use is about 30 minutes a month, depending on news events and other factors, he said. “Because you’re mobile, there are natural interruptions to the watching experience,” Scanlan said. “It’s a behavior shift, and we’re still in the early days of mobile TV. People didn’t really think of it all the time, and sometimes they forget they have it.”
Although Scanlan would like churn rates to be lower, he said, “they are not so high we’re really worried about it compared to other products in the mobile space.”
Scanlan said MobiTV tracks usage and viewing data and shares it with programmers to improve the product. Like cable, programmers receive a fee for their content.
But unlike cable, Scanlan believes there’s an economic limit of how many channels and what he can charge for a package.
“We’re 25 to 50 channels,” he said. “Two hundred channels would kill it. They need to be the right channels.” But he said MobiTV has the ability to do premium channels and special packages.
Scanlan expects two more U.S. carriers to add MobiTV in the future, as well as several Canadian carriers beyond Rogers Wireless.
“The carriers want to start marketing it and spending major money on it,” he said.
As more carriers add MobiTV, he said, the number of handsets capable of handling video will increase.
There are 20 million handsets in use that could handle standard frame-rate video, Scanlan estimated, and another 2 million to 3 million in use at higher frame-rate speeds. But most of the newer phones that hit the market late this year and next will offer higher frame rates.
V CAST TO MASSES
On the recent Verizon Communications Inc. earnings call, V Cast executives said the rollout has gone well, but declined to give subscriber numbers. But the service has been the subject of a national TV-ad campaign, which is likely the first to bring cell phone TV to the mass audience.
V Cast includes more than 300 video clips from ESPN, Cable News Network, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, NBC News, Fox Sports Net, E! Entertainment Television, Warner Music, AccuWeather, NBA Video, CBS Marketwatch and Sesame Street, plus a number of gaming companies.
CNNtoGO Video content includes a three-minute newscast updated every hour, plus 30 other news clips updated throughout the day.
ESPN is providing updated video clips of sports news and information, game analysis, college football and basketball highlights, fantasy game stat analysis, some clips from Pardon the Interruption, SportsCenter promos, ESPN.com’s “Sports Guy” cartoon, X Games content and excerpts from ESPN original programming.
Fox Sports offered Fox NFL Sunday content in advance of the Super Bowl, and is also providing excerpts from The Best Damn Sports Show Period; I, Max; and Beyond the Glory, in addition to news clips.
MTV NETS CONTENT
MTV Networks is providing content from VH1 and Comedy Central, including clips from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. E! is offering news, interviews, plus segments from E! News Daily, The Awful Truth and Wild On.
NBC supplies news headlines and weather updates, plus excerpts from Today and Meet the Press, while 20th Century Fox is supplying new content based on its hit series 24. The studio created 24 “mobisodes” — or 60-second pieces inspired by the Fox broadcast network series.
Walt Disney Internet Group is offering its Kingdom Hearts 3D video game.
The service is one Verizon Wireless’s EV-DO network, available in 30 major markets on special 3G-capable cell phones provided by LG, Samsung and UTStarcom Personal Communications LLC. Those phones range in price from $199.99 to $249.99, but Verizon is offering a $70 rebate for phone purchases.
SmartVideo Technologies Inc. launched its service at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, offering a $12.95-per-month, 15-channel video service consumers with Smartphones or PDAs.
“We have paying subscribers, are generating revenue and learning about the market space,” said SmartVideo CEO Richard Bennett Jr.
Any Smartphone or PDA with appropriate software, such as Windows Media Mobile, can access the service. Bennett estimates there are 20 million to 25 million Smartphones and 30 million PDAs in the U.S. that could access SmartVideo’s services.
The program lineup includes a mix of news, weather and sports, including Fox Sports, CNBC, MSNBC, NBC Mobile, E! Networks, ABC News and The Weather Channel. ABC News is providing its 24/7 ABC News Now channel, plus on-demand video from World News Tonight With Peter Jennings and Good Morning America. The programming is a mix of the 24-hour linear network feeds and package/VOD content.
The Weather Channel offers local weather forecasts updated each hour at bitrates of 15 frames per second. They operate on today’s 2.5-Gb cellular network.
SMARTVIDEO AIMS AT 45
Bennett said SmartVideo plans to announce more content providers soon, as it builds towards carrying 45 channels. Five free ad-supported music video channels were added last week, he said.
The early conventional wisdom is that consumers will watch short-form video from one to three minutes in length. But Bennett said the average view time per session with SmartVideo is approaching nine minutes. And when breaking news stories like the “runaway bride” develop, average views lasted for 45 minutes to an hour. “That’s a stunningly high number,” he said.
Bennett said about 70% of current subscribers across 75 carriers worldwide access SmartVideo using Smartphones, with the remaining 30% using Wi-Fi enabled PDAs.
SmartVideo uses Crawford Communications in Atlanta to receive cable-network satellite feeds. Those feeds are backhauled to SmartVideo’s headquarters in Duluth, Ga., where the content is processed for the public Internet.
Consumers download and install a data application on their smart phones and access SmartVideo just like any other Internet application.
“The application opens up their browser on the phone,” he said.