Device makers bring mobile TV to iPhones

Qualcomm's FLO TV joined Valups in introducing an accessory for picking up digital broadcasts

Two partnerships backing different forms of mobile TV are using this year's International Consumer Electronics Show to announce devices that can bring TV to iPhones through the back door.

There's no built-in hardware for watching live TV broadcasts on the iPhone, but both Qualcomm's FLO TV subsidiary and a group of mobile TV broadcasters are working with hardware manufacturers to create accessories they say can deliver a full mobile TV experience on the popular handset.

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On Monday, South Korean vendor Valups announced the Tivit, a device developed with support from the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), which can pick up Mobile DTV broadcasts over the air and pass them on to various devices via Wi-Fi. On Wednesday, FLO TV followed with an announcement in conjunction with Mophie, a maker of accessory sleeves for the iPhone. They are readying a series of products that add a FLO TV receiver and antenna to Mophie's Juice Pack line of sleeves for iPhones and iPod Touch units, which include extended batteries.

Both products are set to go on sale in the first half of this year. The Tivit should cost between US$90 and $120, and will work with 3G iPhone models, newer iPod Touch models, BlackBerries, Motorola Android phones, and other Wi-Fi devices, according to Valups.

FLO TV and Mophie did not disclose pricing. Mophie's Web site includes some information on the Juice Pack TV for the iPhone 3GS.

TV content has been offered on phones in the U.S. for several years, but much of it has been delivered over cellular networks instead of true broadcasting. Picking up broadcast TV requires special hardware, and mobile TV competes against many other mobile applications and forms of entertainment, such as games and online videos. Analysts question whether it will become the blockbuster hit some are hoping for.

FLO TV provides a mobile TV service, offered by both Verizon Wireless and AT&T, that can deliver as many as 20 channels of live and pre-recorded TV programming. The company, founded by Qualcomm in 2004, owns its own licenses for former analog TV channels and operates transmitters in many large and medium-sized metropolitan areas around the U.S. Its programming is focused on national networks such as ESPN Mobile TV, Fox Mobile and NBC 2go, and the service costs about $9 to $15 per month. The content is available on the FLO TV Personal Television, which is a dedicated handheld TV, as well as on selected phones from mobile operators.

Mobile DTV is a specification approved last October by the broadcasting standards body Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). The standard is designed for local broadcasts on a portion of the spectrum allocated for regular digital TV. It's intended for both free simulcasts of a station's regular programming and, eventually, subscription-based content. The OMVC is made up of 29 U.S. broadcasters that use or plan to use Mobile DTV.

FLO and Mophie didn't provide many details about their planned products. Users will be able to switch their iPhones or iPods between charging, standby and live TV settings, and the Juice Pack's battery will provide an extra four hours of viewing time, according to Mophie. The kit will include a stand for table-top TV viewing.

While FLO TV's rollout is being driven by a revenue-generating service provider backed by a major wireless technology company, ATSC's Mobile DTV is being deployed one broadcaster or station at a time. There are only 30 stations around the country set up for mobile DTV now, though the group expects hundreds by year's end. It costs less than $150,000 and takes less than two hours for a single station to set up the technology, according to David Arland, a spokesman for the OMVC and Valups. The OMVC says its members represent about 800 stations nationwide.

Before full commercial broadcasting on Mobile DTV begins, there will be a trial run in the Washington, D.C., area in the first quarter of this year, the OMVC announced this week. Eight local stations there will show as many as 20 channels of free and premium programming to a variety of mobile devices that consumers will try out. Those devices include the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook, the Samsung Moment phone, the Tivit and an LG Electronics portable DVD player with built-in TV.

Though video on phones seems to have a bright future, mobile broadcast TV faces a variety of hurdles, according to industry analysts.

"I'm bullish on mobile video," said Phil Marshall of Yankee Group. Because the phone is a personal device, it's a good platform for viewing Web video and video on demand, he said. Once consumers start using high-definition wireless video streaming, they will store shows on the phone for replay on TVs and PCs, Marshall believes.

But mobile broadcast TV falls short in terms of the variety of content it offers and how much consumers can personalize the experience, he said.

"You're merely replicating a TV experience on a mobile device," Marshall said.

Mobile TV providers also will need to generate more consumer awareness and enthusiasm for the technology in order to drive further adoption by broadcasters and device makers, according to analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis. The accessory approach these partnerships are announcing at CES also faces a challenge, because TV capability built in to a mobile phone is more appealing to most U.S. consumers, Greengart said.

CES begins on Thursday, Jan. 7.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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