Mobile IPTV Experiment in Korea Could Compete with DVB-H, MediaFLO

While admittedly, two of the big attractions at this year's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona were DVB-H and MediaFLO technologies - both of which generated huge news in the portable digital video fields this week - a smaller and perhaps nimbler set of technologies may quickly evolve into a real challenger: A company with offices in Palo Alto and Seoul called Thin Multimedia Inc. demonstrated a possibly disruptive concept: a kind of embedded IPTV that could endow handsets with the capacity and functionality of living-room set-top boxes.

Last week, a Seoul-based startup called Ubicode, according to press sources there, won a huge contract with handset providers in that country to develop their mobile IPTV service platform. Their bet is that handsets that already have HSDPA broadband capabilities (and HSDPA is already big in Korea) may only need software to render them capable of receiving digital, streaming signals. IPTV platforms do have one conceptual advantage over DVB-H and MediaFLO: Based on Internet technology, they enable unicasting on-demand rather than adopting the broadcast metaphor made prominent by analog TV.

Thin Multimedia's thinIPTV platform could play right into Ubicode's strategy. Yesterday, TMI said it had already won a service contract with KT Corporation, Korea's largest broadband infrastructure provider. Last month, KT concluded a trial test with 239 Korean households of stationary IPTV video-on-demand service, for which 70% of participants polled afterward said they would gladly pay the suggested price. TMI's contract could give KT a kind of "triple-play."

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The mobile digital TV market in the US is still something of a "jump ball." Qualcomm's MediaFLO technology made significant strides this week, signing AT&T to its list of supporters, which already included Verizon. Now, two of the top three US wireless carriers will be principally, if not exclusively, supporting a platform that relies upon Qualcomm chips in the handsets they sell. DVB-H was certainly not counted out, though, as Nokia and other handset manufacturers demonstrated interactive DVB-H services using top-of-the-line models such as Nokia's N77. This model in particular will be sold to customers in countries where DVB-H service has already been widely implemented - countries such as Vietnam.

DVB-H's roots in Europe and its widespread growth in Asia may have contributed to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs' comments yesterday - which some might find bizarre, given the fact that his company just signed on AT&T - that Qualcomm does not plan to build a MediaFLO network outside the United States. Jacobs blamed foreign countries' restrictions on foreign media ownership, sidestepping any possibility that technology might play a role in that decision.

The big technology companies and carriers may prefer the public spotlight to shine solely on the battle between MediaFLO and DVB-H mainly because there's a third competitor - a very strong one - just over the horizon. No, not mobile IPTV, but much simpler and fairly well entrenched: TV.

In February 2009 - assuming Congress doesn't cave in again to pressure - the US moves to an all-digital broadcast TV standard on a newly carved area of the broadcast spectrum. Unlike cellular signals, TV signals can penetrate thick enclosures and big buildings. And in just two years' time, this nation's television infrastructure will be based on a digital standard whose low-resolution option - 480 lines - is perfectly geared for mobile devices. Couple that with the fact that TV has a sort of permanent contract with the nation's largest content providers - CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, et al - and you'd think CE providers would relish the prospects of a digital television platform served up for them by no less than a Congressional mandate.

So why are carriers so inclined to invest in technological alternatives? Because they're looking not just for viewers but subscribers. Of course, that assumes that their digital TV offerings would provide content that viewers would be willing to subscribe to.

As NPD Director of Industry Analysis Ross Rubin told BetaNews last month from the floor of CES, there's a pretty narrow range of content offerings that a DVB-H or MediaFLO service could present.

"It will likely be more clip-oriented, shorter form kinds of entertainment, maybe news shows or sports summaries or music videos," Rubin said. "Maybe even some half-hour shows, but just as we've seen on the iPod, it's more about shorter-form entertainment in a mobile setting than enjoying a movie on the two-and-a-half inch screen."

In two years' time, it might be a trivial matter for Apple to add a digital TV receiver onto a video iPod or Apple iPhone. It wouldn't need a content agreement with someone like NBC, or a technology agreement with someone like Qualcomm, to do so. However, mobile broadcast TV does lack one critical feature, which broadband users might actually expect: on-demand choice.

Enter the spoiler in the midst, mobile IPTV. Apple already has an investment in IPTV service, so it may be another trivial matter for that company to extend mobile IPTV onto its wildly popular gadgets. Of course, it would need an available source of already developed hardware, which could be why players like Thin Multimedia Inc. are revving up now. The US may yet catch up with Vietnam in the race for digital, interactive, portable television.

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