Is Vodafone’s mobile TV in for a cool reception?

Enter alt description text hereVodafone is confident that next month will be a “3G Christmas” following the launch of its mobile television service. But a new survey suggests customers aren’t as enthused by the concept as the network hopes.

The mobile phone giant has teamed up with BSkyB to offer its 250,000 3G subscribers 19 channels, including Sky News, Sky One and MTV. Some channels will be broadcast live, while others will be specially adapted for viewing on mobile phones.

However, just 17 per cent of respondents to an Entertainment Media Research survey want TV content on their phones, with 70 per cent saying they do not want to watch TV on their handsets at all. By contrast, 44 per cent of people say they would watch TV and films on their home computers.

Third-generation operator 3 offers 11 TV channels, Orange offers 16, while O2 is testing a Digital Video Broadcasting Handheld (DVB-H) service, which bypasses mobile networks, broadcasting to handsets direct from TV masts. But, unlike some of its rivals’ services, Vodafone’s offering – to be called Sky Mobile TV – will be available to all of its 3G customers, rather than just to particular handsets. It will be offered free until the end of January 2006. Customers will then be charged &£5 a month.

Vodafone head of content and advanced messaging Al Russell says: “We’ve got a bold player in Sky, and a strong enough brand to make sure we get this right. It is already resonating with our customers.”

The live channels will feature the same content on phones as on TV, including ads; the made-for-mobile channels will not feature any advertising at this stage. But Russell adds: “Our eyes are open to the potential of targeted advertising. There are a lot of opportunities, but it has to be handled carefully.”

Sky already has download service agreements with various mobile operators, but this is its first live content on mobile phones. The broadcaster is likely to look for more partners when an exclusivity period with Vodafone ends in April.

Strategy Analytics associate director Neil Mawston believes 3G TV will be an interim measure and that mobile TV will not become mass market until the full-scale introduction of DVB-H technology.

Television on mobiles has “great potential”, he says, but adds: “The big problem has been pricing and marketing these applications. Beyond SMS and ringtones, data usage has not really taken off. That doesn’t bode well for mobile TV.”

DVB-H has a number of advantages over 3G, mainly the fact that broadcasting to a mass audience can put the telecoms network under strain. But there are major obstacles to DVB-H becoming a commercial reality. The correct spectrum – band four and five – which is regarded as the ideal frequency for mobile broadcasts, needs to be made available. Ofcom says the right airwaves, currently used for analogue and digital TV, will only become available once the switchover to digital gets underway between 2008 and 2012.

Mawston says less than one per cent of handsets currently have DVB-H broadcast capability, but predicts that will rise to eight per cent by 2010, and 35 per cent by 2015.

Mobile TV is expected to help operators recoup some of the billions of pounds they spent on 3G licences, and presents a host of advertising opportunities for brands. The 3G TV model will give consumers a flavour of what is to come, but it seems unlikely to be more than just a sizeable niche at this stage.

Robert Lester

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