Why one new FTA platform will fail

OMVC logoThe Open Mobile Video Coalition has been, well, coalescing over the past three years or so. Its goal sounds pretty good; the OMVC wants to use another platform to spread free TV. But unless it can bag partnerships with some major cell phone manufacturers, this is going to be another solution in search of a problem.

Let’s back up to the beginning. The changeover from analog to digital over-the-air TV killed the signals to millions of old portable analog TVs. The new digital channels work beautifully with HD sets, but a small screen doesn’t really need all those extra pixels. And apparently it’s difficult for a digital TV to maintain its picture if the TV is moving, as in the back seat of a car.

Enter the OMVC, which agreed on a particular type of digital subchannel designed for a particular type of receiver. Mobile viewers will be able to tune in to any of these “mobile TV” channels in their market if they use one of these new mobile TV receivers.

Now let me tick off some of the problems with this plan.

  • Will there be enough mobile TV channels to make viewers want to buy a receiver? I sympathize with the OMVC, which has a chicken-egg problem. They’re trying to get enough stations in enough markets to broadcast enough mobile TV channels that electronics manufacturers will feel good about creating more mobile TV receivers. And the OMVC needs to have some mobile TV receivers available so enough stations will want to devote some broadcast bandwidth to mobile TV. But will this reach critical mass in enough markets to reward the broadcasters and manufacturers?
  • Will these channels be free? As the OMVC tries to get as many stations as it can under its tent, it’s stayed kind of fuzzy about subscription channels. Clearly, some stations want to broadcast some kind of pay TV, hopefully as a supplement to some free channels. OMVC just chose Neustar as its “Mobile DTV Trust Authority”, or DRM system, so pay-TV channels are a definite possibility. I thought that the failure of Flo TV showed that there aren’t many consumers who are ready to buy a mobile TV device and pay for a subscription to watch it.
  • Who’s going to watch? The prototypical mobile TV viewer is a commuter on a train. Otherwise, hmm. You can’t watch while you’re driving to work. If you’re home, you can get a better picture on your regular set. If you’re sitting at work, or sitting in a stadium, or if the power goes out, you can watch from a regular, battery-powered portable digital TV. So how many train commuters are there? Will the signal reach down into subways?

The only way mobile TV will catch on is if it’s free (or mostly free) and it’s already in your pocket. Later this year, there’s supposed to be a mobile TV device that works with iPhones, and I’ve seen mobile TV USB dongles for netbooks and laptops, but that still requires making customers go out and buy and carry around some extra thingie just to watch mobile TV. On the other hand, if your Android phone or iPhone 5 already had a mobile TV chip built in and the antenna was your earbuds, that would make a nice feature. You might find yourself watching local news while you waited in a checkout line. But that’s only if you didn’t have to buy or do anything extra to the phone you were probably going to get anyway.

The OMVC will be exhibiting at the NAB Show again this year, (free exhibits pass still available here) and it promises to show off a prototype mobile phone equipped with mobile TV. If that works, and if the OMVC can get installed on enough phones, then it has a chance. Unless all that works out, mobile TV is going to be just another failed branch on the tree of technology.