Image: LG prototype phone with digital TV tuner
LG and Samsung are working on prototypes of phones that have mobile digital television tuners in them to receive local TV broadcasts. LG's Lotus phone, one of the prototypes, has a 2.4-inch diagonal screen when opened.
updated 7/17/2009 9:27:24 AM ET 2009-07-17T13:27:24

Testing of free mobile digital TV for cell phones, netbooks and other on-the-go devices is ramping up in the weeks ahead, and the first devices that can provide such broadcasts should be on store shelves by next year, according to the broadcaster-based group behind the effort.

"Just like you turn on your TV today at home and watch live and local broadcast television, you will turn on your handset and be able to watch live and local broadcast television," said Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition.

Trials are underway around the country in cities such as Chicago, New York and Raleigh, N.C. The biggest test pond will be Washington, D.C., where broadcasters have the attention of what may be the nation's most powerful audience — politicians. "We already have two stations on the air there, and we'll have the rest of our stations on air by next week," said Schelle.

Cell phones are probably the largest single group of devices that could receive local TV programming.

"There are 250 million of them out there," said Schelle. It's not clear whether wireless carriers are as enthusiastic.

The two largest, AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, use a subscription-based service FLO TV, a subsidiary of Qualcomm, which delivers live broadcasts from several cable channels such as MTV, ESPN and Comedy Central over the its own mobile network. Subscription rates start at $15 a month, and carriers get a portion of that revenue.

AT&T also offers MobiTV (along with Sprint and Alltel), which is a streaming TV service. It now has more than 7 million subscribers, MobiTV said. The service costs about $10 a month. The notion of offering cell phones that deliver local TV for free may not be as appealing, but AT&T, for one, is being measured about it.

"We can't speculate on what we might do in the future, but we do have a history of offering innovative services to our customers," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.

Question marks
Michelle Abraham, In-Stat principal analyst who covers mobile television, said it is understandable if wireless carriers balk at the idea of offering phones that have free local broadcasts available on them.

"Here in the United States, the carriers typically subsidize the cost of phones," she said. "We don't pay full price for them, but with that subsidy, the carriers also control to a certain extent what goes into the phone.

"A $200 phone can be discounted; maybe it's free, or maybe it's $50. But it costs extra to put these extra components — like a digital TV tuner — in, and if there's not revenue in there for the carriers, then why would they offer it, and at what subsidy would they offer it?" she said. "Those are the question marks."

MobiTV chief technology officer Kay Johansson said the company has worked "extensively with the Open Mobile Video Coalition to help establish the free mobile broadcast standard," and is "developing ways to integrate free content into our service."

Among them is what MobiTV is calling "MixTV," which combines "free, live broadcast content and premium video-on-demand content with interactive and DVR-like capabilities," the company said recently.

Ultimately, said Johansson, "we believe the free mobile standard will help accelerate mobile television adoption by exposing more consumers to the medium."

That exposure could come via additional tech gear that could broadcast local TV, including netbooks, little laptops weighing 2 to 3 pounds.

"Consumers are certainly snapping those up, with 30 million sold over the last year-and-a-half," said Schelle. Also in line for digital TV tuners: rear-seat entertainment units in vehicles, personal media players, DVD players and regular laptops.

Dell showed a prototype of its Inspiron Mini 10 netbook with the mobile DTV tuner at the National Association of Broadcasters' meeting last spring. On July 28, Dell is slated to do a demonstration in Washington, D.C., letting lawmakers test out netbooks that have been "hand-configured" with the mobile TV technology, a company spokeswoman said.

The technical "standards" for free mobile digital television is "at its final stage," said Schelle, and will likely be approved by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, which oversees such matters. "Device manufacturers are already building to the standard," she said.

And it seems consumers may be ready for those devices, as the appetite for video — including TV — has been growing, particularly on phones.

"There have been so many different methods of getting video signals to your phone," said In-Stat's Abraham. "You've had the option of going with a service that brings it through the cellular network or downloading content from a PC onto a phone. Certainly, you can go through the iTunes Store and have video on your phone.

"This is yet another way, and it tends to lend itself toward live events, whether it be sports or news," she said. "It will be more akin to the model we have today. You can get free TV on your television set if you want to put up an antenna and have the right receiving equipment. Or obviously, you can subscribe to something in the pay TV realm. This will enable both in the mobile arena."

What consumers want
The ability to receive local news is important, said Schelle, of the Open Mobile Video Coalition. The coalition did a consumer trial 18 months ago of mobile digital TV featuring national programming, she said, and "the one thing that came back from the survey was consumers said, 'We like this service, but we really want to access our local stations.' "

Broadcasters do not have to make a "huge, significant investment to add on this additional service to what they're already doing today," she said. "For example, broadcasters just have to add on a mobile transmitter on their transmission site. They don't have to build a transmission system, they didn't have to buy the spectrum, they didn't have to purchase the content, all that kind of stuff.

"It's an inexpensive way for broadcasters to take what they do day in and day out, and to provide that to more than just the living-room television set."

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