Embracing a technology that has unnerved media and telecommunications companies, a major European wireless provider will let customers watch their home cable TV on a cell phone if they also have a device called the Slingbox back at the house.
3 Group will launch the new service in Britain first, starting Dec. 1, followed by three more of its 11 markets in early 2007, the wireless company announced Thursday.
Two new handsets running on 3's next-generation wireless network will feature the Sling application, which customers can use to watch any channel available on their cable TV at home. The phones also can be used to control a digital video recorder at home, pausing and rewinding live television, playing previously recorded shows, or setting up the DVR to record a program.
The partnership with 3 is a watershed for Sling Media Inc., the first sign of official recognition from the industry "establishment" for a renegade device that the California-based company began selling a year ago. The Slingbox, hooked up simultaneously to a set-top cable box and a broadband connection, can stream live and recorded video over the Internet to any laptop or handheld equipped with SlingPlayer software.
The gadget is the latest in a line of devices that have reshaped the way people watch television over the past few decades.
Before the VCR, catching a TV show required viewers to conform to a schedule set by networks. More recently, digital video recorders such as the TiVo made it possible to skip commercials and even rewind a live program. Now devices and software like the Sling not only make it possible to watch TV anytime but also anywhere.
But much as TV networks and movie companies initially questioned the rights of viewers to record their content on a TiVo, they also have objected to the notion that monthly cable fees paid by subscribers entitle them to view cable programming in more than one location.
In the case of TiVo, however, cable companies quickly moved past their objections and began offering DVRs of their own to customers, generating new revenue.
Slingbox presents a potential problem not only for the media companies that own the content, but for phone and cable companies worried that streaming video and other high-bandwidth uses may clog their networks — while generating no extra revenue for them.
In the United States, for example, Verizon Wireless and other cellular companies put clauses in their contracts restricting the way subscribers can use their wireless Internet connections on phones and laptops.
3, a unit of Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., plans to offer Sling access as part of a premium service called X-Services, though usage will not be unlimited. Details of the pricing and additional fees for extra bandwidth use were not immediately available.
The British version of the Slingbox sells for 180 pounds ($340). The first two 3 handsets loaded with the SlingPlayer software will be the Nokia N73 and the Sony Ericsson w950i. Prices weren't disclosed.
3 also didn't say where it would offer Sling next. It has upgraded its wireless network with the required broadband technology in Italy, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel and Ireland.