Content issues on tap at wireless confab

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CORRECTED 12:23 p.m. PT, Feb. 8, 2008

RELATED: Highlights of Mobile World Congress

Visitors to the GSM Association's Mobile World Congress next week in Barcelona, Spain, will be forgiven for mistaking the confab for a Cannes-style film festival.

Robert Redford and Isabella Rossellini are expected to make appearances, but they're not in Spain to tout their latest theatrical releases. The actors are but bit players in a bigger drama playing out at the conference: how the content industry plans to take advantage of the worldwide boom in mobile delivery.

Juniper Research recently predicted that the total global mobile content market, valued at $20 billion in 2007, will reach $64 billion by 2012, based on music, games and video. Mobile TV, worth $1.4 billion in 2007, is expected to bring in about $12 billion by 2012.

But numbers barely begin to tell the story. Because mobile content varies widely from country to country, The Hollywood Reporter has taken these snapshots of developments in regions around the world.

NORTH AMERICA

Although the Hollywood community has embraced mobile content, the U.S. still is struggling to find its way: Most cell phones are 2G (3G phones account for a mere 10%-15% of the market), carriers have a tight lock on content distribution (often referred to as "the walled garden") and consumer interest in mobile TV content remains low.

Still, "we're bullish on mobile entertainment," Jupiter Research wireless analyst Julie Ask says. "We expect to see phones with more multimedia features to watch video. But you just can't put technology out there. You need to generate demand for services."

The FCC's upcoming auction of the 700 MHz spectrum will change the landscape, but nobody knows how. "One thing's for sure," Ask says. "What we'll see is more non-cell phone, non-laptop devices with cellular connectivity for video and audio services."

Google has said that it will join the list of spectrum bidders, and it already has shaken things up by introducing Android, its Open Handset Alliance industry coalition platform. Whereas today the consumer is forced to purchase a handset from the carrier, the Open Handset Alliance is pushing for carriers to allow consumers to buy a handset independently. Verizon and AT&T have both said they will open their networks.

With open networks, off-portal content becomes more of a possibility.
"Mobile is already a Wild West in terms of content," says James Cannella, vp entertainment development at marketing firm Impact Mobile. "By opening up the barrier and letting the content be king, it'll open up content distribution companies and foster new players to come in the game. There is no reason why Coca-Cola can't be a content distributor -- or at least on the same playing field as Apple or Microsoft or Verizon."

Much is afoot in mobile content in the U.S.: Blockbuster is at work on new technologies to improve delivery of digital content to mobile devices, and networks as diverse as Discovery Channel and USA Network are making original content for mobile. AT&T will launch its live mobile TV service this year.



ASIA-PACIFIC

Japan and South Korea are the world's most sophisticated mobile markets; China is the largest; India is the fastest-growing. Asia also is home to a huge number of developing nations -- from Bangladesh to Mongolia -- that have yet to get a significant toehold in mobile.

Almost 40% of pure data revenue worldwide is generated in Japan, according to Lawrence Cosh-Ishii, co-founder and representative director of Mobikyo, a resource for foreign companies doing business with Japan's wireless industry.

"Three-quarters of the population use the mobile Web, and four in five users have high-speed 3G phones," he says. "Recent figures indicate that over $8 billion in annual sales are generated from official on-deck mobile content and commerce alone in addition to untold off-portal activities."

All the most advanced rich-media experiences -- music, gaming, digital broadcast TV, social networking and location-based services -- are core offerings.

Although experts in the U.S. argue over whether four minutes is too long for a mobile video, in Japan consumers routinely watch 45-minute shows on their phones. Why? "One TV set in the home and an hour commute on the train," Cosh-Ishii says.

Jason Ling, head of mobile products and technology at MySpace, predicts that within 18-24 months, full Internet on mobile devices will be available in Japan and Korea. "Adobe is working on Flash Lite, so you can have full Flash on your mobile devices," he says. "With a WiMAX network, it's like having a laptop in your pocket."

China has a half-billion mobile subscribers, says Bruno Bensaid, a partner at China Expansion Fund, which works with European venture capitalists interested in the Chinese telecom sector. Mobile chat and IM are top applications, and social networking and online video downloads are major growth areas.

Furthermore, Bensaid predicts that 3G handsets and the arrival of a third operator will "change the paradigm and establish new rules in the mobile market."

The Orchard's Scholl reports a high consumption of master-tone products but notes that "a considerable amount of piracy makes it difficult for services to come online and gain traction."

According to its Telecom Regulatory Authority, India has more than 30 million people accessing the Internet through their mobile phones out of a total of 200 million mobile subscribers.

Content also is rich, with niches in Bollywood films, music and games. According to Madanmohan Rao, an e-services consultant and author of "Asia Unplugged: The Wireless and Mobile Media Boom in the Asia-Pacific," music and sports are the "killer apps," with Web portal Cricinfo providing for a ball-by-ball update of cricket scores as well as live commentary and score updates via a tie-up between Cricinfo and MobiCast. MySpace also has launched in India, localized for this specific market, Ling says.



EUROPE

Europe is a sophisticated mobile market, with penetration scores of more than 100% in some countries (many consumers have more than one mobile handset). There's a robust embrace of 3G, third-generation technology that powers phones fast enough for TV and multimedia. And Europe has accepted a single mobile TV standard, DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting -- Handheld), which also can speed the uptake of content. According to Frost & Sullivan, the European mobile TV market is expected to reach $10 billion by 2011.

In the U.K., mobile Internet is hot right now, says Daniel Appelquist, senior technology strategist at Vodafone Group Research & Development. Carriers and off-deck (noncarrier) brands are vying for consumers.

"We're seeing large brands, both traditional Web and old-media brands, embrace the mobile Web," he says. "Meanwhile, Vodafone and other U.K. mobile operators have been outdoing each other with mobile Internet pricing plans."

More competition comes from upstart mobile operator 3, which offered the iPhone with "the most Internet-friendly tariff yet," Appelquist says. "But the market here was significantly more mature than the U.S. market, so the iPhone hasn't been as game-changing here as it has been in the U.S."

Another U.K. model for mobile content comes from Blyk, a telecom operator fully funded by advertising.

"When you join, you accept advertising, but advertising is tailored to your interests," says Jari Tammisto, president of global operations at mobile technology company Game Production. "In exchange, you get free calls, free SMS. The idea is not to make money out of the ads. The whole idea is to understand the consumer behavior."

Mobile music also is big in the U.K. Greg Scholl, president and CEO of the Orchard, which distributes 1 million songs and 4,000 hours of video programming, reports that the band Ministry of Sound launched their own MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). That says a lot about the strength of the mobile music market in the U.K. given that in the U.S., even Disney couldn't make a go of its MVNO.

Russia also has greater than 100% mobile phone penetration, and all three of the largest national mobile carriers (MTS, Vimpelcom, MegaFon) recently got their 3G licenses, with MegaFon launching the first 3G service in the country, in St. Petersburg.

According to Michael Novikov, CEO and founder of investment firm Admin, the Russian mobile-content market was valued at $550 million in 2007, which represents about 14% of total cellular revenue. Novikov counts at least 250 content providers.

Nonetheless, content remains basic: ringtones and wallpaper (34%), followed by much smaller segments of infotainment, games, mobile commerce and payments. Mobile streaming TV is weakly developed, but video clips and animation for download are becoming more popular. MySpace launched a Russian-language localized mobile site in January, continuing social netorking's global push.

Another advanced European market is Finland, home of major handset provider Nokia. According to Tammisto, Finnish youth are mobile mad, and their main use for the platform is social networking. Particularly popular are music shows where the viewer sends an SMS message to the host or MC, who reads viewers' comments on-air.



MEXICO & SOUTH AMERICA

Although some carriers do provide mobile TV offerings, it's too expensive a proposition for the vast majority of users in Mexico and South America, says Nidal Barake Awar, co-founder and director of Tedexis, a mobile solutions company in Caracas, Venezuela.

Carriers also don't sell many video-enabled handsets. Nicholas Montes, president of content provider Viva Vision, says that TelCel -- the largest carrier in Mexico, which has a deal with MobiTV for TV content -- offers a mere four video-enabled handsets out of 50 choices.

Another obstacle is that South America is not nearly as homogeneous culturally as the U.S. or other markets. "It's challenging to cover the entire territory," Montes says. "There are specific nuances for every country. Comedy, for instance, is so culturally specific that it becomes difficult to do."

In addition to ringtones and sports, adult content also is popular in the region, but, Awar says, such countries as Colombia, Argentina and Ecuador increasingly are putting up obstacles to this genre.



DEVELOPING NATIONS

Countries that don't have Internet infrastructure are ripe markets for innovative uses of mobile phones. "In Turkey, you have almost 60 million users of mobile and 20 million Internet users," Tammisto says. "They are leap-frogging into mobile (Internet) usage, and they see mobile as the only way to access the Internet."

Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are all countries that are "very strong on developing multimedia for mobile," he says. "All these countries (that are) not so strong in Internet see mobility as the tool."

There also is money to be made in mobility for developing nations. The Abu Dhabi Group says that it set up mobile content, offered by Germany's Bertelsmann, to telecoms and media markets in several countries throughout Asia (Bangladesh) and Africa (Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of Congo). The Abu Dhabi Group targets underpenetrated mobile phone markets where growth potential is high.
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