Koreans tune into DMB service
Tim Culpan in Seoul
Provider confident that its paid satellite offering will prove more popular than free terrestrial rival
As 3G mobile network operators struggle to find viewers for video clips and other media services, a rival technology in South Korea is rapidly finding an audience.
More than 60,000 subscribers have signed up for the country's first digital mobile broadcast (DMB) service since it was launched last month.
TU Media - part owned by SK Telecom and hardware makers including Samsung, LG and Pantech - launched the satellite-based service on May 1. Subscribers pay 13,000 won ($99) per month for eight video and 25 audio channels. The company promises to expand the line-up in the future.
Just three handsets equipped to receive satellite signals are available at present. Samsung makes two and the third comes from SK Teletech, an SK Telecom subsidiary. The satellite signals can also be received on PDAs, in-car television sets and portable TVs, but handsets so far account for 92 per cent of subscribers.
A separate free terrestrial service is expected to be launched later this year or early next year by a string of domestic TV stations, and will compete directly with the satellite offering.
SK executives said they were confident their offering would be more attractive than the free service. 'The basic technology is the same between terrestrial and satellite, but the difference is in the investment,' one official said.
The biggest problem for both satellite and terrestrial are the shadow areas, where a signal cannot be received. TU Media has invested 125 billion won in 'gap fillers' to help receive and retransmit the signal so it can be received indoors and underground.
A further 70 billion won will be spent this year. That investment is recouped through subscription fees. TU Media executives claim the rival free terrestrial service will not have the same signal coverage because there will be no money to pay for it. Terrestrial will be available in Seoul and major urban areas, but satellite will be universally available.
While 3G services are clunky and slow, the DMB service offers smooth, clear pictures with a crisp audio quality. Only in larger devices does the relatively low picture quality show up.
Not surprisingly, the greatest challenge is battery life. DMB handsets burn large amounts of power receiving, decoding and playing audio and video.
Samsung staff claimed the battery in the company's phones could provide three hours of non-stop viewing - enough for the average user who watches about 28 minutes of mobile TV per session.
Executives do not expect consumers to watch full-length feature films from their handsets but believe there will be a market for short hits of entertainment and information.
About 19.8 per cent of the users watch news.
While terrestrial DMB has yet to launch, it is already causing trouble for TU Media's satellite service. South Korea's most popular content is found on terrestrial channels, but those stations have been reluctant to offer programming to the rival satellite service.