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March 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 3
Next Wave Redux

Mobile Video-on-Demand, not Mobile TV

There is a lot of buzz about Mobile TV, but the term is ambiguous. Sometimes it means broadcasting television to mobile handsets and sometimes it means mobile video-on-demand with content that includes TV clips. The difference is critical.

Operators in many regions are building broadcast services. This means buying new spectrum and building new radio infrastructure. Broadcast standards include Digital Video Broadcasting — Handheld (DVB-H) in Europe, multiple standards in Asia and elsewhere, and Qualcomm’s MediaFLO in America. Besides significant infrastructure investments, these services require new handsets which take time to get adopted. So there’s been a lot of talk but little action, so far.

A more fundamental problem: the broadcast era is nearly over. When TV became popular in the 1950s, wireless technology was primitive and storage was non-existent, so people were happy with a few channels on fixed schedules. With cable, we got several hundred channels, with TIVO we set our own schedules, and with the Internet we see the future is any video, on demand. The only continuing need for broadcasting will be live coverage, of sports or breaking news, for example. So it’s a questionable time for big new investments in broadcast networks.

But broadcasting to mobile handsets has another problem. Many viewing opportunities occur at odd moments and last for relatively short intervals — you are waiting at a bus stop, or riding in a train or taxicab. So you need video-on-demand and short video segments, sometimes called “mobisodes.” And, by the way, these use existing 3G infrastructure.

What’s actually working? The U.S. has perhaps 250 million mobile subscribers today. According to Nielsen and M:Metric estimates from mid-2007, over a quarter of U.S. mobile handsets were video capable, but only a small percentage of those subscribed to data services and used their video capability.

Of those actually using mobile video-on-demand, the most popular content categories are music videos, movie trailers, weather, sports action clips, comedy videos, cartoons and amateur video shorts. Note the strong preference for short format videos!

Another interesting result is that viral video viewing far exceeds the demand for content from the carrier’s WAP deck. 85% of mobile video viewers watched content sent or pointed out by a friend or family member while only a third had watched content offered by the operator. The missing ingredients were YouTube, which only became mobile video-enabled in January 2008, and easy access to content, like YouTube, that’s outside the operators’ walled gardens.

So forget mobile TV broadcasting and think video-on-demand. Then throw open the walled garden. What people want is mobile, on-demand access to the broadest possible set of video clips and easy ways to share cool content with family and friends. IT

Brough Turner is Senior VP of Technology, CTO and Co-Founder of NMS Communications (

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