In his Fierce VoIP post on Monday, Doug Mohney reports that one of his takeaways from last week's CES is that your TV is morphing into a phone. Maybe so, but another - and potentially bigger - story at CES is how your phone is turning into a TV set.
The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) debuted the new ATSC candidate standard for broadcast - free-to-air - mobile TV rolling toward final approval later this year. At CES, the OMVC was showing live broadcasts on prototype handsets, mobile video players, PCs, and in-vehicle video players.
This just could be more important even than making a videophone call via your 54-inch HD TV. It might even be - dare I say it? - even more important than Skype's announcement last month about the VoIP's demise; a discovery, let me add, that is hardly original - Jajah co-founder Roman Scharf famously tried this attention-attracting gimmick back in 2006.
Why is the OMVC's announcement important? Because it's a potential game-changer.
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far way...in 1927, to be exact, American Telephone & Telegraph and Bell Laboratories demo-ed what the New York Times called "the first practical demonstration of television," in which live picture and sound were transmitted from Washington, D.C. to New York City over phone lines.
The following year the Times heralded the dawn of the television age, writing, "Radio Pictures for the Home is Next Step in Broadcasting. Television - that is, seeing motion pictures on the radio - is approaching."
When was the last time you watched TV on your wired POTS phone? Contrary to high tech pundits' predications 80 years ago, television didn't conquer the world via either copper phone wires or electro-mechanical "photo-radio machines."
But when it comes to mobile TV, the U.S. perspective is just as primitive as that 1927 NY Times story.
We're stuck in a model where cell phone carriers decide if, and for how much, we can watch Daily Show clips on our handsets. Mobile TV here is dominated by businesses whose revenue model is selling minutes to people making phone calls, as opposed to broadcasters whose revenue model is selling audience access to advertisers. Which explains why mobile TV penetration is low in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world.
Mobile TV delivered by TV broadcasters is, well, so obvious it makes you want to bang your head against the wall.
"Broadcasters definitely have the edge in cost and effort over cell phone carriers - they're using the existing infrastructure that's already in the ground," explains OMVC Executive Director Anne Schelle.
"It's fairly inexpensive for a broadcaster to put up a mobile transmitter on an existing tower - as little as $50,000 and as little [installation time] as four hours. In the mobile industry it takes as much as a year to put up a single cell site."
Of course, it doesn't matter if it's cheap to build if no one wants to buy. But local broadcasters have much of what mobile viewers want, Schelle says. They have stuff you need to know right now - like when a hurricane is headed your way or a 15-car accident closes the freeway.
"If you look at broadcasters, they have the most highly watched shows," Schelle says. "If you look at [mobile] carriers, what they're offering is very limited. If you look at the two countries that have really deployed broadcast [free-to-air] mobile TV - Japan and [South] Korea, both have 50 percent penetration [for mobile TV viewing].
"When the iPhone was introduced there, consumers didn't flock to it because it didn't have mobile TV," she adds.
But Doug is right that TV will get smarter. The phone's return channel gives broadcasters a direct connection to viewers and opens opportunities for interactivity.
"At NAB there was a demo with mobile DTV on a tablet computer showing Dancing With the Stars and you could vote by touching your favorite contest," says Schelle. "Think American idol and being able to vote on your handset."
Put it all together and you get - dare I say it? - TV 2.0, propelling local broadcasters into become new media companies. The payoff potential is big. Research firm BIA predicts that by 2012, $1.1 billion in additional advertising revenue will flow to local TV stations from mobile TV services.
Right now there's a boatload of handsets that pick up broadcast TV - even analog TV. You wouldn't know that here in the U.S. because you can't buy them here.
Of course, these handsets don't support our broadcast standards, but, as evidenced by the OMVC's dog and pony show at CES, component makers are gearing up and Schelle expects devices equipped with ATSC-mobile TV receivers to be on retailers' shelves by 2010.
Of course, this seems like grim news for carriers. But don't write them out of the equation just yet. Carriers may just find a new and interesting use for that bandwidth. Remember that 1927 television broadcast over telephone lines? We call that broadband multimedia today.If you're interested in what you can watch on your phone - as opposed to whom you can call on your TV - check out Broadcast Engineering's Mobile TV Update. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm the editor. And don't tell me that it's impolite to promote your own publications. It's a Brave New Media World and all bets are off.)
Illustration courtesy of Tom Genova, owner of the online TV history museum, Television History - The First 75 Years.