UK: Briefing Update: Mobile TV

Last Updated: 8 May 2007
Article by Faustino Obeso

"Mobile TV" refers to the service that allows consumers to receive television and radio content on mobile phones and other portable devices. It is rapidly growing in popularity. This year has seen the results of some trials on mobile TV services that have been carried out by mobile operators.

The final results of a trial carried out by O2 in Oxford show that 85% of users were satisfied with the service and 72% indicated they would take up the service within 12 months at an acceptable price. Other trials, such as the one carried out by BT, have already led to an agreement with Virgin to provide mobile TV to its users in the UK.

Two thirds of the users would be prepared to pay up to £8 per month for the BT Movio service.

Mobile TV is already available in South Korea and Japan, and China seems to be preparing its launch for the 2008 Olympics. In Europe, Viviane Reding, Information Society and Media EU Commissioner, said earlier this year that, "mobile TV is an opportunity. I see this issue as a matter of urgency".

However, despite the positive development and acceptance of the service, there are still a number of challenges that need to be overcome before mobile TV becomes a mass market product and reaches adoption predictions indicating that it will generate worldwide revenues of around $5.5 billion and 69 million subscribers by 20091.


One of the first challenges is deciding which technology should be used to distribute mobile TV. Currently the choice is between streaming and broadcasting.

Streaming uses the existing 2G/3G networks to deliver content to mobile phones. The most popular form is unicat streaming, where an individual stream is sent to each and every user. The other form is MBMS, where multiple users are streamed with the same content at the same time.

Streaming has been criticised due to its serious bandwidth limitations, so the most viable solution seems to be broadcasting. However, there is no unanimity as to what standard should be used:

  • DAB: this is the technology backing the Virgin/BT Movio product. It works by enhancing the existing digital radio signal. One of its key advantages is timing; it uses a part of the spectrum that is already available in the UK. The major drawbacks when compared with the DVB-H technology are its limitations in terms of capacity and that it offers less quality.
  • DVB-H: this is the technology that seems to be more dominant in Europe and platform for the O2 trial in Oxford. It works in the same way that analogue and digital television are transmitted, by broadcasting the television signal over an area. DVB-H provides both quality and capacity. Unfortunately the spectrum needed for its deployment is not currently available in the UK.
  • MediaFLO: this is the technology to broadcast data to portable devices that was developed by Qualcomm and that will be used by Verizon in the US.


As can be seen with two of the most prominent mobile TV standards in Europe, DVB-H and DAB, the issue of spectrum availability remains one of the key factors determining the commercial feasibility and future development of a mobile TV product in the UK.

The part of the spectrum that appears to be the most technically suitable for broadcasting mobile TV is the UHF band, which is currently being used for analogue television. According to the government’s plan, the process of switchover to digital will begin in 2008 and will be finished in 2012. In the meantime, Ofcom needs to decide when to release the UHF spectrum needed for DVB-H. This may not be done until the analogue signal is completely switched off, and, considering the fast paced nature of technology trends, 2012 looks too far away.

The mobile operators and manufacturers may need to find alternative solutions to the lack of adequate spectrum – DAB being a clear example – or the development of the mobile TV as a mass market product will need to be delayed. This delay will be problematic if, as the studies show, there is customer demand. In this context Commissioner Reding’s call to treat mobile TV in Europe "as a matter of urgency" is particularly pertinent and action may need to be taken sooner rather than later.


The technology issues surrounding mobile TV deal mainly with identifying the most appropriate channel for distributing data in an efficient way and ensuring that there is enough quality and capacity. Nevertheless, even if the perfect distribution channel is found, the operators still need to determine what content they are going to distribute, and most importantly what consumers want to watch on their mobile phones. Such content can be user generated, specifically made-for-mobile, or traditional television. Of course, an underlying factor to all the content are the media rights attached to it.

At the moment, most of the content shown on mobile TV has originally been designed for other types of platform such as ordinary television and it is being adapted so it can be watched on mobile phones. In addition, the viewing patterns of users still remain uncertain. According to the O2 trial, people were watching mobile TV at home in the early stages of the trial, whereas towards the end were watching while commuting or at work. The trial also showed that known television brands were more popular than the new made-for-mobile content. The size of the devices, the battery life or the viewing duration may also have an influence on the type of content to be distributed through mobile TV. For example, one could reasonably question whether you can realistically follow a Wimbledon final, or watch the entire 3 hours and 40 minutes of Gone with the Wind on your mobile phone. Notwithstanding true technological constraints, viewing habits for mobile devices are likely to be intermittent, with people watching highlights or "dipping" in and out of programmes.

Following the success of websites such as MySpace, operators may also look into user generated content as a way of widening the options available on mobile TV. User generated content may also have the benefit of avoiding the still uncertain subject of the licensing of media rights.

Media rights are themselves another factor that are holding back the development of mobile TV. Broadcasters and producers are discussing who owns the rights on content that was originally designed for traditional television and who can sell the rights for the distribution of such content over the new platforms that the new technologies have created (mainly broadband and mobile devices). The mobile operators also want some clarity on this matter. The difficulties in acquiring content for their mobile TV offerings may delay or prevent them from presenting users with a commercially-attractive proposition.

Under the current regime, broadcasters acquire primary rights normally allowing them to air a first national broadcast and a repeat, whilst independent producers hold secondary rights which generally include overseas rights, merchandising, etc.

At the beginning of this year Ofcom, launched a consultation on the television production sector. Ofcom also believes the issue of rights over the distribution of television programmes on alternative distribution platforms need to be clarified. The regulator advocates that the detail of any solution should be a matter for commercial negotiation between broadcasters and producers, rather than a matter for regulatory intervention. However, if a solution is not found, Ofcom will choose to intervene. It has even pointed out which approach it would take.

Ofcom proposes two main rights windows: (i) a "primary" window, in which the rights acquired by a public service broadcaster apply across any distribution platform; across any wholly-owned channel; for a specific duration; and, for free-to-view UK distribution, and (ii) a holdback period during which the broadcaster will be able to apply a restriction in relation to the subsequent exploitation of rights by the producer. At the end of the holdback period, the ability to control exploitation of the programme would then revert to the producer. Ofcom has not yet issued a policy statement in relation to this consultation and the industry is still trying to find a suitable solution to the conflict.


There are already signs that mobile TV offers a considerable business opportunity and all the major stakeholders are working towards its future success. Studies are showing that consumers are not only willing to use the product, but even pay for it; mobile operators and manufacturers are searching for the technology that will best enable them to deliver a quality product in an efficient manner; and the authorities are trying to create an adequate legal framework.

Despite all this, it is still too early to see how exactly mobile TV will develop in the UK, or when (or if) it will actually become a mass market product.

Consumers are yet to determine what exactly they want to watch on their phones; mobile operators and manufactures need to agree on a standard technology to deliver the content; and finally the authorities need to resolve the problem of the unavailability of spectrum.


1 Datamonitor: Broadcast TV to mobile – A solution looking for a problem? (Dec 2005)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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