EU seeking mobile TV solidarity

Proposed legislation calls for DVB-H to be standard

BRUSSELS -- It could bring together broadcasters, telecom operators and handset-makers in a media bonanza, and yet for all its promise, mobile television is still struggling to reach critical velocity in Europe. The scattered services in a few national markets have yet to translate into a concerted push by the industry, and consumers remain confused about the technologies.

Now, however, the European Commission is ready give mobile television a shot in the arm by mandating common broadcasting standards. The commission -- the European Union's executive authority -- has decided that if markets alone cannot launch the process, then regulators will have to step in. EU Media and Information Society commissioner Viviane Reding is expected to formally announce Tuesday that digital video broadcast handheld, or DVB-H, is the preferred standard for mobile TV technology.

EU support for DVB-H could be the decisive factor in the battle between half a dozen standards. Reding will urge all the businesses involved in mobile broadcasting to rally around the technology in time for next year's major sports events, the Euro 2008 football tournament and the Olympic Games in Beijing. DVB-H already is in use in 17 EU nations. Nokia has announced that it will only be making DVB-H handsets, and other big names in the industry such as Intel and Motorola are expected to follow.

Reding's push will be welcomed by such program makers as Dutch television producer Endemol -- the company behind the "Big Brother" reality show format -- which began offering streaming services to mobile firms as TV via 3G networks in 2004. "We feel slightly disappointed with the development of mobile television broadcasting so far. It has been much slower than expected," William Linders, Endemol's executive director for digital media, said. "While we expect it to really take off in two to five years, I would have given exactly the same time scale two years ago."

But he said Endemol is a strong backer of standardization in the sector. "We need to ensure that the services and networks are in place and that there are common standards before broadcasters really get involved. But when they do, there should be a flood of programs. The content will be there, and there is a consumer appetite for it," Linders said.

Reding puts the potential value of the sector at €20 billion in 2015, with 200 million Europeans regularly watching mobile TV on their handsets. A report by industry analysts Berg Insight is even more optimistic, estimating a market worth €32 billion by 2012, with 50% of all mobile phone users watching mobile TV content, up from the current level of 15%.

The commissioner's move follows concerns that the entire process is being held hostage by industry squabbles over competing technologies and platforms. But why should it matter to broadcasters and industry what an official like Reding thinks? Because they will be reluctant to commit investment until there is certainty about the technologies.

History has already shown how the adoption of the GSM standard (the Global System for Mobile communications used by more than 82% of the world's mobile phone users) fueled the explosion in mobile phone use, and how the triumph of the VHS video format killed off Betamax. Indeed, Reding has already hailed the EU's pioneering role in pushing the GSM technology as a case of benign intervention -- and giving a head start to companies such as Nokia of Finland and Ericsson of Sweden. "In this case, the EU has a chance to become a global player just as it did with the GSM success story," she said in March.

But there are other barriers to mobile broadcasts in the EU. One of them is the lack of spectrum in the UHF frequency band: Due to its current use for TV transmission, there is very little left for mobile broadcasts, and this will remain the case until Europe completes its switch-over from analog to digital TV.

And then there is content. Most of the current content is in short video clips, games, sports and music videos. The average length of time users watch TV content on their handsets is seven minutes, according to the Mobile Entertainment Forum (MEF), a newly formed association that includes companies like Ericsson, Endemol and Vodafone. But while the short format dominates the market, the MEF says that viewing time will increase as broadcast quality improves and handset battery life is extended.

Mark Selby, Nokia vp for multimedia, said that content that spins off existing shows is likely to be widely available initially but eventually there will be a whole new genre of made-for-mobile content. Television producers and handset-makers already are developing new concepts for the "back channel" -- the interactive element of the mobile broadcasts. "This allows the user to take part," he said. "It is a totally new way of engaging with the audience and is especially resonant with young audiences, who don't want to merely sit down and watch TV anymore."

If he is correct, mobile broadcasting could deliver the extraordinary opportunities that have been touted for so long. But everyone involved in the sector -- broadcasters, operators, cell phone makers and regulators -- understands that none of this promise will ever be realized until the technical standards and platforms have been sorted out. And Reding is hoping her intervention will at least spark the process for Europe's nascent mobile broadcasting sector.