Cell-phone TV: Flashy, yes. But flash in the pan?

Observers not sure if consumers will get hung up on, or hang up on, new info appliance

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For five weeks last summer, Gregg Nissly watched CNN and Fox News on a cell phone -- squinting while laying out by the pool; on his lunch break; listening "but not looking," he said, while driving to work.


Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette

The Upper St. Clair resident was part of an invitation-only, secret Pittsburgh trial of a live-TV network designed expressly to be watched in the palm of your hand.

"It was fun. I liked having the news all the time, being able to get the news when I'm in the car or at work," said Mr. Nissly, who works at Axcera, a Lawrence firm that makes transmitters that help power the TV network.

The architects behind this mobile TV service, developed and tweaked in the Cecil offices of Modeo LLC, an off-shoot of British-owned wireless firm Crown Castle International, are hoping -- in fact, banking on -- American consumers sharing Mr. Nissly's sentiment that TV via a cell phone is something they can't live without.

But the prospects for mobile TV and for Modeo are fuzzy.

Industry watchers aren't convinced consumers are game for grasping downsized snippets of news, music videos or their favorite TV shows on 2-inch by 3-inch screens.

Live TV geared specifically for cell phones was a flop in Korea and Japan, in part because the phones were bulky and expensive, according to Boston-based Yankee Group Research analyst Charles Moon.

Only a sliver -- roughly 5.3 million or about 2.5 percent -- of America's cell users watch TV on their phones, according to Yankee Group. And a survey of those big-spending video and mobile-loving 18-to-21-year-olds found that only 8 percent said they'd pay to watch video on their phone.

But if the mobile TV landscape is overcast, it could be because consumers may not know what they're missing, say some industry watchers.

Like the Internet, mobile television is expected to take off when consumers get a taste of what's out there. Mr. Nissly found himself watching about an hour of TV on his cell phone everyday, double the time Modeo's average test-users usually clock.

Buzz about mobile TV, which has been building in recent months, peaked last week after Verizon Wireless' kickoff of live TV, using technology provided by Modeo's chief competitor MediaFlo, a spin-off of San Diego-based chip firm Qualcomm.

For an extra $15 to $25 a month, customers can watch such shows as CBS' "Evening News with Katie Couric" and "Survivor" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" as they air on regular television, as well as replays of shows such as "Chapelle's Show."

The price tag for mobile TV phones will factor a great deal in consumers' willingness to embrace the new technology. In addition to the monthly fee, Verizon's live-TV-enabled handset will retail for $150 for new customers and $200 for current customers who want an upgrade.

Industry watchers also are encouraged by the growth of MobiTV, which offers a mix of video clips and made-for-mobile programming. Available through Sprint and some other cell phone carriers, MobiTV doubled its customer base to 2 million in less than a year, due in part to wireless' customers willing to tack an extra $10 on their monthly bill to have access to ABC News and ESPN.

Other wireless carriers are gearing up to stream live TV to their customers -- AT&T said it plans to offer MediaFlo's service later this year -- and T-Mobile and Sprint are auditioning it.

Modeo, however, is still in trials, with roughly 150 consumers testing its service in New York City.

While consumers' appetites for TV-on-the-go seem tepid today, industry watchers are betting they'll be increasingly whetted this year and next as mobile TV grows out of its infancy into a service that consumers will shape and mold.

Live baseball games, celebrity news briefs, weather and traffic reports or full-length replays of "The Late Show with David Letterman" are likely to drive the number of consumers who watch live TV or video on their cell phones to 30 million in the next two years, according to Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Research.

Still, it may take a decade or two before mobile television is as ubiquitous as cell phones or YouTube, analysts say.

By then, many consumers won't remember the world without constant access to information and entertainment at their fingertips, said IDC's chief wireless analyst Lewis Ward, "It won't seem crazy based on all the other gadgets that are around."

Consumers cozying up to mobile TV in the future won't solve Modeo's problem today -- it's a company making a new technology that no one is rushing to buy.

Some in the industry are wondering if Modeo and Crown Castle will roll out their TV service without a wireless company to sell it to customers.

Modeo chief Michael Ramke insists the company will proceed with or without a cell phone carrier.

It could team up with an Internet music service or cable company that would resell the service to niche cell phone companies such as Virgin Mobile. Mr. Ramke said the company is in talks with firms interested in selling live TV, but that it has no plans to sell it to cell phone users directly.

Modeo and mobile television's prospects are fine with or without wireless carriers, said Sam Leinhardt, who heads Penthera Technologies, the Strip District-based startup that makes the software behind Modeo's TV network.

Mobile television, he said, will evolve much like the cell phone market did, with MediaFlo paving the way like another wireless pioneer, Motorola, did decades ago.

MediaFlo, said Dr. Leinhardt, "will convince everyone that mobile TV works." That is expected to open the flood gates for the likes of Modeo and other business to meet consumers' growing demands for more bells and whistles, such as tailored-to-taste programming and advertising as well as the ability to record programs on your mobile phone -- all tools that Penthera has developed for Modeo.

"There's no end to creativity once you open up the doors," Dr. Leinhardt said.


Corilyn Shropshire can be reached at cshropshire@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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