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Mon 17 Dec 2007 10:46 AM

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Handheld future

With industry sources predicting that mobile TV could generate as much as US$11.7 billion in earnings by 2011, it is widely touted as the next big thing in the telco sector, and industry players are hoping to buy end-user interest. CommsMEA investigates.

The mobile telecoms industry has witnessed many false dawns of the ever-elusive "killer application" and as voice revenues continue to fall, mobile TV is often viewed as the communication sector's biggest hope.

But many industry insiders think that if mobile TV is to be a success, it must offer end-users something more than just TV via mobile phones.

Entry into the content and applications space requires significant scale and market share - Hilal Halaoui, senior associate, Booz Allen Hamilton.

To this end, a recent report by Motorola's Bilal Saleh, director of applications and mobile TV services, identifies how industry players must tailor the interface and content to offer a bespoke service necessary to capture end-user imagination.

Entitled ‘Personalisation, Convenience and Originality: How Converged Video Can Switch Viewers on to Mobile TV', the report envisages that infrastructure interoperability and content management will advance in the following 18 months to open up the market still further.

"Content has long been touted as ‘king' in attracting viewers and improved compression technologies are making it easier to digitise and distribute entertainment for a high-quality mobile viewing experience," he says.

Furthermore, the intense competition among operators to secure exclusive rights to premium programming is also mirrored by content providers, who are eager to get in on the act, as the proliferation of delivery platforms lead to increasingly fragmented viewing audiences.

Saleh's report argues that as mobile TV takes shape in the telco industry, the issues of personalisation, user-friendliness and standardisation must be addressed before it becomes a ‘must have' product.

"Users will benefit from ‘time-shift' TV. So if a subscriber is watching a football match on their mobile device and has to enter a train station, transmission will be halted. But when they exit, the handset will offer the opportunity to recommence viewing. It will also provide a prompt to replay critical action that may have been missed," he says in the report.

The report also explains that intelligent technology can be used to record what content has been accessed in order to tailor services. Saleh predicts how handsets can offer a "context-aware" border, housing a menu with a list of related services.

"With football clips, this may include the option to view the season's goals, or to buy screen savers or ring-tones - all delivered seamlessly and charged to subscribers' accounts," says Saleh.

"The interface will seamlessly aggregate these feeds from the web and both cellular and broadcast TV systems," he adds.

With mobile handsets widely regarded as a ‘can't live without' companion, Saleh also estimates that devices with a personalised single Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) will enable users to connect to aggregated content from across networks, including DVB-H, cellular and IPTV systems.

"As well as searching and accessing favourite shows while mobile, the EPG will transform the device into a wireless remote control. So subscribers can send instructions to the set-top box or Personal Video Recorder (PVR) to record programming or download a movie," he says.

This example of technology's convergence, enhancing convenience, demonstrates how mobile TV will enable digital TV to extend beyond the living room and transform end-users from passive recipients into active subscribers, the report says.

However, a number of technological and standardisation issues must be addressed before such grandiose services can reach the mass market.

Mobile TV demands a broad technical compass according to Saleh. He adds that all tiers of the industry must cooperate to drive value from the service.
The recent IPTV World Forum, Middle East and Africa, hosted in Dubai, assembled delegates from across the telecommunications industry to discuss ways of pushing on-demand content over both mobile and IP networks.

Alcatel-Lucent's Eric Leseigne, VP public affairs and business development, maintains the key to succeeding in mobile TV services is to achieve mass-market penetration.

"Studies show that operators that offer mobile subscribers as part of a bundled service are the most successful in this segment," he says.

He goes on to highlight that the quantity of content involved is important in winning traction in this market, adding that the highly personalised nature of the medium means that operators have to offer the most varied content to subscribers.

"This means that operators will have to choose a technology that gives their network the optimum capacity and maximum coverage," says Leseigne.

He further stresses the need for operators to provide the maximum coverage for mobile TV, adding that carriers should consider how and where the medium will be accessed.

"This may sound obvious, but companies should always remember the word ‘mobility' when choosing the technology for this service. If they only have coverage in the densely populated urban areas it will not work.

"End-users that subscribe to a mobile TV service will want the freedom to travel and access this service and so I think it is vitally important for operators to facilitate this demand," Leseigne adds.

Integration of services is another important aspect of advancing the business case of mobile TV, according Leseigne. "In order to generate revenue form mobile TV services it's important to make it part of an attractive bundle offer," he says.

Market research also indicates that transparency in tariffs charged for mobile TV services is also considered a key driver in encouraging subscriber take-up.

"People want to know exactly how much they are spending and are wary of hidden charges, leading me to believe that a flat subscription tariff will be the dominant charging model. It's also important to remember that this service will most likely be used whenever a subscriber has some spare time which will bar the pay-per-view model," Leseigne says.

Consumer behaviour in the European market indicates that sporting events, news bulletins and vignettes of TV programmes, such as soap operas and reality TV shows, are the main content drivers for the service.

Alcatel-Lucent is setting its stall out with the digital video broadcasting satellite-to-handheld (DVB-SH) standard due to its ability to combine satellite signals together with terrestrial repeaters.

"This technology provides a seamless coverage area as the repeater constellation provides coverage in densely populated urban areas, with sparsely populated areas benefiting from satellite transmissions," Leseigne explains.

Supporters of the DVB-SH standard cite the cost-effectiveness of the technology as an additional benefit to operators.

Leseigne contends that the diverse geographical landscape of the Middle East, with its rapidly growing cities and vast rural areas, makes the standard a particular asset to the company.

"If operators can achieve a penetration rate of over 20% of their subscriber base with an average ARPU of EUR7 a month then I'd estimate that they can make a return on investing in the DVB-SH standard within four-to-five years," he says.
However, Leseigne acknowledges the "big unknown" surrounding the service's ability to generate revenue for telco operators.

"So far nobody has been able to achieve mass market success and this is due largely to the lack of the right technology infrastructure and there is no clear business model at present," he says.

Satellite age

However, the success of mobile TV could also be limited by the bandwidth of the 3G networks that it relies on. Wejdi Harzallah, vice president of commercial operations at S2M, a Dubai-based mobile TV specialist, is well aware of the problem. Harzallah sees 3G networks as inadequate for the large-scale deployment of mobile TV, largely because it could saturate the network.

"3G is not made for large scale mobile TV and is not suitable for broadcasting on a large scale," he says. "When you have a download, an interactive service, an SMS, or when you want to download a music clip, it is very good because you want to do it on an individual basis.

"But if you want to send the same content to thousands of people at the same time, 3G will have to divide that bandwidth between all these users, and it actually saturates the capacity of the network and the quality becomes very poor."

For S2M, the best way to disseminate large-scale mobile TV broadcasts is by satellite, and the company is planning to launch a satellite-to-mobile broadcasting service for the Middle East and North Africa in 2008.

The company is planning to launch its service early next year using Arabsat's satellite, before switching to its own satellite later in the year.

Satellite technology can give improved mobile TV quality and also brings potential economies of scale, Harzallah says. For example, the satellite platform for the MENA region will be shared between about 24 operators across more than 20 countries, Harzallah adds.

Another advantage of using satellite to deploy mobile TV technology is that it allows the end user to roam within a far greater geographical area while still receiving seamless content.

However, Harzallah adds that satellite and 3G technologies for mobile TV are complementary and will not necessarily be competing with each other. For example, 3G networks allow content providers to deliver a personalised TV service, allowing individual users to download their personal choice of programme, while satellite is more suitable for large scale, live broadcasts.

"Broadcasting and 3G are complementary and not competing, so operators can continue to recoup their investment in a much better way while the broadcasting solution will give the right platform to entice people to use their 3G and interactive portals," he says.

Harzallah expects content providers and telcos to buy into satellite services for mobile TV. He points to markets where satellite-to-mobile services have already been deployed - and are in the process of being established - as evidence of the growing interest in satellite as a medium for mobile TV.

The technology was developed in Japan and South Korea, and is now also being rolled out in China and other countries. S2M is paying particular attention to the Korean market, where TU Media, which offers a satellite-to-mobile service in the country, has about 1.2 million subscribers.

In the MENA region, S2M expects to bridge the gap between telcos and content providers. "From the content point of view, providers are looking to extend their reach," Harzallah said. "They are looking at this as a future opportunity - they have content and they want to extend their reach and generate extra revenue. What they like about our platform is that they can reach the entire region at once.

"This technology is for the benefit of all," Harzallah adds. "It is for the entire Middle East and North Africa. All telecom companies and content owners should benefit from this.

"What we are doing is bridging the gap between the content operators and the telecom ops. We are bringing the capabilities that neither of these have and that can link both of these together."

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