Hong Kong sets mobile TV auctions for '09

Will license three operators using two standards

BANGKOK -- The Hong Kong government said Tuesday that it will auction three mobile TV licenses in 2009, a move that could put city viewers one step closer to watching their favorite dramas and soccer matches on the go.

The 15-year licenses will allow operators to broadcast in the DVB-H standard common in Europe and in the T-DMB standard common in Korea.

High bidders for the licenses will have to begin broadcasting within a year and a half, putting the start of the market's mobile TV rollout in the second half of 2010.

Japan leads the world in tiny TVs, with 20 million cell phones equipped with TV receivers. South Korea is next, with 8.2 million, according to data from U.S.-based research firm In-Stat, which says that there were 29.7 million mobile TV viewers in the world at the end of 2007.

The number is expected to nearly double to 56.9 million by the end of 2008, driven by strong growth in Japan.

European and U.S. mobile operators are putting up new broadcasting towers, designing new mobile devices and commissioning new TV programming, even though it's not yet a proven model for profit.

Hong Kong's Hutchison Whampoa has been right in the middle of the experiment, as owner of 3 Italia, the largest mobile TV broadcaster in Europe. It has 800,000 paying customers who make up about 10% of its total subscriber base.

About 1 million Italians pay as much as 19 euros ($30) a month to watch about 12 channels from 3 Italia, Telecom Italia and Vodafone Italia.