Prospects for DVB-H mobile TV dimming even with EU mandate

There is one standard for digital mobile TV in Europe, as the European Commission decided five months ago. Despite that, service providers are still opting for their own methods instead, and even the EC is already planning an alternate route.

Even though the European Commission formally decided last March that DVB-H will be the single mobile digital television standard for Europe, private operators charged with the task of determining how to build a business model around DVB-H services may be drawing a blank, and are believed to be considering quitting altogether.

Last week, there were indications that a three-way German joint venture between two service providers, called Mobile 3.0, might discontinue its tests of DVB-H service to select regions of Germany prior to its government-mandated, end-of-autumn deadline. In that venture, T-Systems -- the infrastructure arm of Deutsche Telekom (T), which operates T-Mobile in the US -- provides the system's backbone, while the pairing of Mobiles Fernsehen Deutschland (MFD) and Neva Media provide services. Stations broadcasting over this test service include the nation's two largest public broadcasters, ZDF and ARD, plus news channel Deutschland 24, three music TV channels, and six premium channels.

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The service was built around a subscription model, where viewers pay as much as 10 euro per month for the premium-tier service. But as the German news service Bild first reported last week, T rolled out a separate mobile service to its own mobile customers, where they could receive many, if not all, of the same channels through DVB-T service on T's own phones -- as opposed to separate DVB-H receivers -- for no additional charge.

This provoked MFD to back away from the partnership, apparently leaving the smaller Neva Media to fend for itself. While legal disputes erupt over who gets how much of a split from the partnership's existing revenue -- a bit like divvying up alimony payments at this point -- Germany's president of the State Institute of Telecommunications (LFK, the counterpart to the US' FCC), through an interview in Digitalmagazin, called upon Mobile 3.0 to fulfill its obligations: to complete its tests before the fall, to report on its success, and to come up with a viable business model that fairly competes with now free services provided by the partnership's own key member.

Failure to do that, said LFK President Thomas Langheinrich, may force the German government to "reshuffle the cards," which may mean it could select a whole new set of partners to compete with T's DVB-T service. The introduction of DVB-T does change the parameters for DVB-H, Langheinrich acknowledged, so it remains to be seen whether there can be a viable business model for DVB-H in Germany. But the state is staying out of that process, he added, leaving it to the Darwinian dynamics of capitalism to determine whether the fittest can survive.

Last March, European Commissioner for Telecommunications Viviane Reding unashamedly drove through legislation that mandated DVB-H as the continent's official standard for digital mobile television service, whether or not providers there were willing or ready to accept it yet. In an appearance in the US in January, Comm. Reding said that it's generally necessary to let the market decide the standard, but when it fails to do so, or even when it chooses the wrong standard, then it's time for the government to step in and make that decision.

For his part, Pres. Langheinrich appears not yet willing to take that extra step -- to mandate a business model for DVB-H in Germany, and to force telcos and service providers there to comply with it.

In the meantime, Comm. Reding just this morning announced her group is ready to formalize a process for selecting continent-wide licensees to provide -- most ironically -- mobile satellite TV service, which would directly compete with the DVB-H service she herself championed. Under this plan, service providers including T would compete for licenses to provide mobile satellite TV service to all of the EU's 27 member countries, rather than apply for individual licenses for each country.

"Mobile satellite services have the tremendous advantage of being able to cover most of the EU's territory thereby reaching millions of EU citizens across borders," reads Reding's statement this morning. "They represent an unprecedented opportunity for all Europeans to access new communication services, and this not only in metropolitan areas, but also in rural and less populated regions. However, these satellite services depend on substantial investment and therefore need simple and swift procedures as well as long-term legal certainty. This is why the Commission, in close cooperation with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, set up, in a record time of only ten months, a single EU procedure for selecting interested operators of mobile satellite services."

How the funding for developing and maintaining a mobile satellite broadcast service would be feasible, while the very same carriers are having trouble raising funds for mobile terrestrial broadcasts, is a matter Reding did not address. Nonetheless, interested prospective licensees have until October 7 to respond to the EC's call.

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