By around the time the caterwauling starts up on Fox TV's American Idol's 2007 amateur singing contest, millions of Verizon Wireless Inc. subscribers may be able to watch and listen live on their phones.
There's no news yet on programming, but Verizon joined with Qualcomm Inc.'s MediaFLO USA Inc. subsidiary on Thursday to say it will be the first U.S. wireless service provider to use MediaFLO's multicast technology. The service will launch commercially around the end of 2006, depending partly on availability of handsets, according to Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson.
To help mobile operators deliver high-quality multimedia content to their customers, MediaFLO plans to build a network separate from existing cellular systems. The MediaFLO network will use former TV broadcasting spectrum around 700MHz licensed by Qualcomm, leaving a carrier's cellular frequencies free for other services. Customers will need new phones equipped to use the new network in addition to Verizon's existing CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technologies, such as EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized).
Verizon plans to use MediaFLO for live TV programming to complement its current VCast downloadable video service, Nelson said. The TV service initially will be available in about half the markets that are already covered by Verizon's high-speed EV-DO service, which reaches 171 metropolitan areas and about half the U.S. population, he said.
Verizon operates the world's largest cellular network using CDMA, which Qualcomm, in San Diego, California, developed. The carrier's long-standing relationship with Qualcomm is one of the reasons Verizon chose MediaFLO over other alternatives for mobile TV, such as DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld), Nelson said. Verizon also believes MediaFLO is the best system for delivering the service, he said.
So far, the companies have just a letter of intent on MediaFLO, Nelson said.
"This is the direction we're headed in, but there is still a lot of stuff to be covered," such as content, handsets, user interfaces, marketing and service packaging, Nelson said. MediaFLO will decide what content to deliver over its network, but the companies work together closely, he said.
The MediaFLO network could deliver 20 live streaming TV channels, 10 live audio channels and 800 minutes of downloaded content to a phone, according to Qualcomm. For example, a user could subscribe to certain kinds of video programming and have it downloaded in the background, said Jeffrey Lorbeck, senior vice president and general manager at MediaFLO. However, Verizon doesn't plan to use MediaFLO for downloaded video or for music, Nelson said.
The MediaFLO network will operate on what has been UHF (ultra-high frequency) television channel 55. Though Qualcomm has licensed the channel on a national basis, the frequency is still being used for TV in some areas, Lorbeck said. TV stations are vacating old channels such as 55 as part of a gradual transition from analog to digital TV.
"Spectrum issues will not be a limiting factor in which markets we go into," Lorbeck said.
MediaFLO will have the capability to offer local as well as national programming, according to Lorbeck. The company is looking to offer its network to all U.S. operators, including those that don't use CDMA, Lorbeck said. Outside the U.S., it may provide technology and some financial support to third parties that want to build networks, he added.