Coming Soon to a Car Near You: TV

One company that will definitely breathe easier on Friday when all analog TV stations in the U.S. finally shut down will be MediaFLO USA, a Qualcomm subsidiary that broadcasts wireless mobile TV. MediaFLO has been distributing its FLO TV service through Verizon Wireless and AT&T in selected markets for the past couple of years. But it has been kept out of a number of markets where UHF Channel 55 was still in use and in other areas, TV stations operating on adjoining channels forced FLO to operate at less than full power.

Unlike other affected companies that bit their tongues and supported a four-month postponement of the analog shutdown in February, MediaFLO couldn’t even pretend that it was comfortable with the delay. “It’s been years in the waiting,” says President Bill Stone [title corrected]. “The service has been built out and we’ve been paying for leases.” The digital transition will finally allow MediaFLO and its partners to begin marketing its service much more agtressively. (Neither MediaFLO nor either carrier has revealed subscriber numbers.)

At the same time, MediaFLO is shifting its target audience somewhat. While there seems to be a market for broadcast TV on phone handsets, there's little evidence that it's a huge one. But many minivans and SUVs are already equipped with rear-seat video systems and later this year, MediaFLO plans to add them to its market. It's partnering with Audiovox, which is building a plug-in module that will let existing systems receive MediaFLO broadcasts. This will also bring a change in the business model since instead of distributing through wireless carriers, MediaFLO will be marketing directly to consumers.

The MediaFLO system, which uses a network of terrestrial broadcast antennas, has a maximum capacity of 20 channels of programming. It is currently offering 15 channels, including NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, Viacom, and ESPN. Pricing for the auto service has not yet been set, but is expected to be between $15 and $25 a month.

Another new product will let smartphone owners watch MediaFLO programming on their existing handsets. It will be a small module that receives MediaFLO boradcasts, than retransmits the content to the smartphone over an ad hoc Wi-Fi connection.

MediaFLO does not have the mobile broadcast market, however big it may turn out to be, to itself. Sirius Backseat TV is availabe as a $7 a month add-on to Sirius XM satellite radio service. But Backseat TV only offers three channels, all aimed at children. It available pre-installed in half a dozen Chrysler (ouch) products, and as a $300 add-on for existing video systems. AT&T CruiseCast, like Sirius a satellite service, offers 22 channels of TV for $28 a month. But it requires a $1,299 receiver that includes a fairly sizable rooftop antenna.

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