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Fat phones litter mobile-TV 'minefield'

Posted by iNext - 2006-03-07

DUBLIN, Ireland — Even as speakers at the DVB World Forum here this week expressed optimism about the worldwide adoption of the DVB-H standard for mobile TV networks, they were busy assembling a long list of possible booby traps, both obvious – such as the chronic shortage of spectrum bands – and seemingly trivial, like "fat phones."

As analog TV shut-off dates approach both in Europe and in the United States, nations will need to decide what they should use the soon to become vacant spectrum for, and how they should allocate it, said David Wood, head of new media at the European Broadcast Union (EBU). "Can DVB-H and HDTV both succeed?” asked Wood, noting “because they are both looking for the same spectrum, aren’t they?"

Meanwhile, the looming "fat phone" crisis emerged in remarks Thursday by Simon Mason, head of new product development at Arqiva, who lamented consumers’ fascination with ultra-thin mobile phones, typified by Motorola’s wildly popular "Razr." "Consumers," said Mason, "want small, neat, smart phones." However, he added, the first generations of cell phones capable of receiving mobile television services will tend to be bulky – to accommodate the added electronics necessary.

He cited the need to include items such as a 3G modem, a large color display screen, and a good omni-antenna, and noted that any mobile device capable of receiving video would assail the user with "lots of noisy digital clicks."

While DVB World speakers fretted over “big picture” problems like the spectrum clash between handheld television and big-screen HDTV, participants like EBU’s Wood interjected nagging worries like TV licenses. Wood asked a group of panelists if some European governments might consider a mobile phone capable of receiving TV signals to be an entirely separate TV in every household, requiring a separate licensing requirement-- with all the fees and taxes that go along with it.

John Cullen, of O2, the British mobile operator, said that currently most European governments don’t require fresh licensing for mobile TVs, but added that this is a “gray area” complicated by the current proliferation of delivery technologies.

Among stumbling blocks also cited by Cullen was the usability problem of Electronic Service Guides (ESG), on-screen TV guides. ESG, designed to let users see what services are available, currently differs in each phone offered by different vendors. The necessity to re-learn the ESG with every change in handset, said Cullen, is a consumer turnoff so serious that it could stifle the growth of mobile TV. He said ESGs must be standardized and-- above all-- simple.

"You have to remember," Cullen said, "that most consumers still don’t know how to program their video recorders."

Content rights represent another issue that threatens the progress of DVB-H. Cullen, discussing a prominent mobile-TV trial in Oxford, England, said that it took six months for broadcasters to get permission from a host of content owners--in areas that ranged from sports to cartoons to movies-- before the trial could commence, although it involved just 375 viewers.

Cullen called intellectual property rights (IPR) issues "a patchwork quilt of different treatments for content, which [is] a minefield for broadcasters."

And then there’s politics, a matter that everyone at DVB World was reluctant to discuss. The main concern was the attitude of the European Commission (EC), which has declared itself technologically "agnostic," supporting no technology over any other.

Phil Laven, director of technical department at the EBU, said that the EC’s bland neutrality leaves the mobile TV industry "paralyzed" on many fronts.

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