Giulio Dorrucci knew the battle was lost when an iPhone turned up on his desk back in 2008. Elegant and with a touch screen interface, it looked every bit the much-touted “third screen” to watch video on.
For Dorrucci, who helms Singapore startup PGK Media, which works on mobile TV using terrestrial digital TV broadcasts, it became clear even in the early days that users would soon turn to TV or media streamed over a cellphone network rather than the flavour at the time, the – DVB-H or digital video broadcasting – handheld.
“Anyone can use wi-fi and an app to watch TV from all over the world,” he told TV ASIA Plus. “Despite us trying hard, the business model for DVB-H handsets quickly became cold and a lot of digital TV operators went into silent mode.”
After completing successful trials broadcasting channels like ESPN and CNBC to Nokia handsets, PGK Media faced another steep challenge. The turning point had come for not just for mobile broadcast TV, but for much of Singapore’s terrestrial digital broadcasts.
In early 2010, national broadcaster MediaCorp pulled the plug on its TVMobile service that used DVB-T to deliver programmes to buses and concentrate more on new services that ride on telco networks. More recently the broadcaster announced that it was shutting down its digital audio broadcast (DAB) radio service, putting an end to any mobile broadcasts and placing almost all bets on transmission across cellular networks.
Currently, both SingTel and StarHub deliver mobile TV services that stream LIVE videos through their 3.5G networks. SingTel has a Barclays Premier League (BPL) app. Rival StarHub, offers an app that shows 33 channels on smartphones and 16 channels on tablets. An average of 80,000 to 90,000 unique users watch these programmes on the go each month.
While Singapore moves away from broadcast and towards Net-based delivery, the country’s route cannot be more different than other countries in the region where mobile broadcast TV has taken off.
In Japan, the 1-seg service that enables mobile users to tune in to the country’s nationwide TV broadcasts, is a mainstay, with more than half of phones there supporting the feature. The latest models from Samsung and Sony Ericsson, for example, look identical to ones overseas but have little, thin antennas which users can pull out to tune in to TV on the go or at home. In TV-mad Japan, even the iPhone comes with 1-seg. Not that Apple catered to the Japan market, but smart Japanese engineers have found a way to build a compatible receiver that tunes in to 1-seg TV signals and then retransmits the content to phones using Wi-Fi.
South Korea, too, has operated a successful digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) system since 2005. The country is one of the most successful mobile broadcast TV markets with some 23 million DMB receivers, according to the WorldDMB Forum industry group. The key, say market watchers, is that both countries invested early in digital broadcasting systems before the advent of high-speed mobile data networks that now seem to be the preferred mode of delivery, allowing service providers and device makers to tap on content that was already in the air.
Even though Singapore began as early as the 1990s with DAB as well as DVB-T broadcasts, a small market meant it could not command the manufacture of supporting devices that its northern Asian neighbours could. The result: a lack of compatible devices.
Said Dorrucci of PGK’s trials in Singapore, “Nokia had a few handsets for a while, but after that, you didn’t see that many handsets. Echoing that, StarHub’s assistant vice president of integrated solutions, Stephen Lee, pointed out: “No doubt that broadcast technology is the most efficient way to deliver TV services to mobile devices, but for any technology to be adopted in a place like Singapore, a good range of attractive handsets must be readily available to support the broadcast technology.”
Making it even harder for mobile broadcasting, Singapore is already well wired up with StarHub’s cable network and this will be further enhanced by the national broadband fibre optic network that launches in 2012. This means terrestrial digital TV broadcasts – and their associated towers and costs – will be even less attractive.
Still, having “missed” a generation in mobile TV, the country could yet leapfrog ahead by adapting to what has been touted as the new way of watching TV on the go, where programmes are delivered smoothly, watched on demand and shared on social networks. When MediaCorp said it was switching off DAB for good, it was keen to stress that its mobile radio app – MeRadio – was becoming more popular with users of smartphones.
StarHub, meanwhile, aims to include more interactivity to its TV on the go with smartphone apps that are branded with its channels. Its FooD.I.Y app, for example, features edited cooking videos by chefs from its popular BBC Lifestyle and TLC channels.
StarHub’s Lee said this was one way of marrying content from different media and “satisfying the appetite” of users in a country with a love for both food and smartphones.
But a big challenge for mobile TV services delivered over the Net remains network quality. Watch a LIVE football match on the phone, for example, and often jerky images abound. Indeed, so much bandwidth is being gobbled up by video that it is estimated to be half of all the data sent over mobile networks.
While telcos test out smarter networks that can sense and prioritise video traffic to deliver a smoother experience, the use of mobile networks for broadcast remains in its early days, certainly in terms of reliability, say experts. Beyond the technology, what boils down ultimately could be getting the business case right – something that early mobile TV proponents here did not, and which current mobile TV efforts are still struggling with.
One problem, pointed out Foong King Yew, research vice president at analyst firm Gartner, was replicating what worked in one market in another, because of the differences, say, in the broadcast infrastructure. He said service providers could go with the traditional advertisingsubsidised way of charging for content on the go, or perhaps use mobile channels as a way to promote and lock in users to their traditional TV subscriptions.
But either way, the challenge is getting users to pay for the content – whether this is pay-per-view or subscription-based – when viewers are used to getting free stuff on channels like YouTube, he stressed. “There’s just no magic formula for monetising mobile TV right now.”