Unresolved issues cloud picture for China mobile TV
In a growing number of markets around the world, consumers will be able to watch television on their mobile phones this year. Services are already commercially available in South Korea and Japan. Mobile television is also making headway in Europe and the United States.
So, when will the mainland's mobile masses be able to tune in to mobile TV?
Behind the misleadingly simple term - mobile TV - there is a complex interplay of three critical factors: regulation, technical standards and business models.
The regulatory aspect is especially contentious in China. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television is responsible for overseeing broadcasting, controlling broadcast frequencies and licensing TV content. The convergence of mobile telephony and broadcasting is blurring traditional lines, as it gives companies such as China Mobile the potential to reach customers with new audio-visual content technologies, including 3G and mobile TV.
Mobile operators have not been able to obtain mobile TV licences so far. Shanghai Media Group (SMG), a state-controlled media conglomerate, is the only company to do so.
SMG's wholly owned subsidiary Dragon Mobile is co-operating with China Mobile to conduct trials in Shanghai and other markets in Fujian and Guangdong.
The service, available since October last year, has only about 170,000 users despite being free. It is offered over the General Packet Radio Service (2.5G) mobile network of China Mobile, which does not provide a high-quality viewing experience.
Another key factor in the development of mobile TV is related to technical standards. With widespread 3G technology unlikely to be available for much of this year in China, the commercial appeal of mobile-network-based TV is limited in the near term.
In contrast, the appeal of broadcast mobile TV is greater. Broadcast technology has clear advantages over telecoms-network-based mobile TV in terms of picture quality and cost-effectiveness.
Broadcast mobile TV in China has remained limited to field trials in three cities, but the competition between rival standards - DVB-H (digital video broadcasting for handheld), T-DMB (terrestrial digital mobile broadcasting) and Qualcomm's proprietary MediaFLO - is intense.
European vendors, including Nokia, are aggressively championing DVB-H. Trials are expected in China early this year in co-operation with provincial broadcasters.
T-DMB, which is more mature, is already being tested by local broadcasters in Shanghai, Beijing and Foshan.
Samsung is talking up the T-DMB opportunity in China. The company recently said it would export 500,000 T-DMB handsets to China.
Whatever the regulatory and technical hurdles, finding the right business model to make money will determine the success of mobile TV.
Companies may have to subsidise handsets to encourage consumer adoption. In South Korea, while the T-DMB service launched in December is backed by major broadcasters and is free to view, the cost of terminals will hinder uptake.
In China, broadcast mobile TV services targeting in-vehicle screens in buses and cars are already available in more than 30 cities.
Bringing the service to mobile handsets is the key to broader adoption. So, co-operation is crucial between broadcasters experienced in content and mobile operators experienced in marketing and billing customers.
Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group plans to establish a joint venture with SMG to promote a mobile TV service over handsets using Korean T-DMB technology.
Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group is scheduled to launch a commercial service by the second quarter, which would make it the first mobile TV service provider in China to use broadcast technology.
The business model will be similar to China's wireless value-added services. China Mobile Shanghai will source the handsets and do the marketing and billing.
Samsung and LG are key terminal suppliers for Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group's mobile TV service.
China's regulators have yet to rule on the standardisation of broadcast mobile TV.
Foreign players have considerable opportunities to establish themselves in the emerging mobile TV market, given the immaturity of local standards.
Duncan Clark is managing director of BDA, a Beijing-based telecoms and technology consultancy