A Giant Step For Tiny TV

Real TV shows with broadcast quality finally come to U.S. cell phones

Do people want to watch television on their mobile phones? I'm talking about real shows with broadcast quality, not the sometimes jerky and fuzzy snippets that have been available for a while. Some heavy hitters in the wireless industry are convinced that mobile broadcasting will find a market in the U.S., as it already has in Korea and Japan.

Verizon Wireless' V CAST Mobile TV is now available in about 25 markets, though Verizon has yet to launch a major marketing thrust. For $15 a month, in addition to a voice plan, customers get unlimited access to eight mobile channels, including CBS (CBS ), NBC (GE ), Fox (NWS ), and Comedy Central (VIA ). The broadcasts are available on two handsets, the Samsung SCH-u620 ($149 with a two-year contract) and the LG VX9400 ($199).

The video is actually broadcast over television channel 55 by Qualcomm (QCOM ) subsidiary MediaFLO USA. MediaFLO owns the spectrum, negotiates the licenses for the programming, and runs the broadcast towers—and, as best I can tell, is taking most of the financial risk.

I tested Mobile TV during a trade show in Orlando and in Richmond, Va. The experience is very different from viewing the video Verizon and Sprint (S ) stream over their high-speed data networks. MediaFLO broadcasts at TV's standard 30 frames per second, not the 15 frames used for streaming, and the images are sharper, have higher contrast, and are generally much more television-like. I was able to read small text on the screen and even, with some difficulty, a moving stock ticker.

THERE ARE A FEW DOWNSIDES to broadcast video. To receive TV signals, you have to extend a "whip" antenna that's a bit like a single rabbit ear. That's not the only throwback to television of yore. Broadcast shows must be watched as they are scheduled—there's no on-demand. And currently there is no way to record programs for deferred viewing. The main technical impediment to that is the vast amount of memory high-quality video demands and the limited amount of storage on handsets.

The programming also is a throwback to the days when TV consisted of a few broadcast stations. Still, on the networks and on Comedy Central, you get many of the most popular shows as well as an NBC News channel with MSNBC and CNBC. Nickelodeon, ESPN Mobile, and MTV nicely round out the offerings. The service has enough bandwidth for 15 to 20 channels, and MediaFLO plans to expand the lineup over time.

The phones are clever micro-TVs, especially the LG. Its 2.2-inch display rotates 90 degrees for a more comfortable viewing position, and the image automatically switches to full-screen mode when you turn the display. Unfortunately, you also have to rotate the screen to get access to the dial pad, which makes it somewhat inconvenient to use for phone calls. Either phone should get four to five hours of viewing time on a battery charge, though that, of course, comes at the expense of talk time.

Despite the untested waters for micro-broadcast TV, other players are jumping in. AT&T (T ) has signed on to start delivering the MediaFLO service to wireless customers toward the end of this year. And Modeo, which is run by radio-tower operator CrownCastle International (CCI ), is testing a similar service. Modeo uses a Windows Mobile handset that works with both the AT&T and the T-Mobile (DT ) networks.

It was fun to watch TV on a phone while killing time at a trade show or riding around in a car in Richmond. (The micro-TVs work fine in moving cars or trains, though not in airplanes.) But I suspect that to hold my interest once the novelty wears off, MediaFLO is going to have to come up with a lot more content that's compelling.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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