CES Recap 2: Mobile TV might not be so bad

Mobile TV logoThe Mobile TV TechZone was a part of CES this year. Its name sounds a lot more important than it looked, occupying a small island of modest booths near the back of the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. I went there to chuckle at the exhibitors’ plans, but I came away with a deeper respect for mobile TV, even if that’s not saying much.

Let’s start by cataloging the organizations involved in promoting mobile TV:

  • Dyle. That’s the trademark of Mobile Content Venture, which is pushing a subset of channels with “no subscription fee through the end of 2013.”
  • The Open Mobile Video Coalition. That’s “an alliance of broadcasters dedicated to accelerating the development and rollout of mobile television”. The National Association of Broadcasters recently assumed control over the OMVC.
  • The Mobile500 Alliance. That’s a group of TV station owners, “all with the common goal of bringing broadcast television to consumers on their mobile devices.”

I didn’t get too close to the Dyle booth. The folks there were busy demonstrating their latest iPad dongle to some other attendees. It looked like the same old Dyle stuff, and frankly, I don’t care for Dyle. I’m a big fan of the implicit contract between over-the-air broadcasters and their viewers. We own the airwaves, but we allow the OTA broadcasters to use them to entertain and inform us. Subscriptions shouldn’t be part of that relationship.

On the other side of the island was the Mobile500 Alliance, and there I got into a long conversation with John Lawson. At the time, I figured that he was just another suit working the booth, but after our talk, when he gave me his card, I saw that he’s the executive director. Maybe that’s why he was so persuasive.

Lawson agreed with me on a lot of things. He thought that broadcasters didn’t do enough to promote their exisiting digital subchannels. He recognized that in most of the circumstances that mobile TV is available, regular digital TV is also available. And he agreed with the free model for broadcast TV, mostly.

The Mobile500 Alliance system will require a one-time user registration for the tuner to work. Lawson said that will be used for accurate audience measurement, and possibly to choose the best advertisement from a small set of ads pushed to the mobile device. He also allowed that some channels could be subscription-based, but only if they were “premium, cable TV channels,” and that the majority of mobile channels would stay free.

I’m a little uncomfortable with having a lot of the airwaves used for something I’d have to pay to watch, and I don’t like the fact that mobile broadcasting takes away bandwidth that could otherwise be used for regular digital subchannels, but Lawson thought that mobile TV and subchannels could exist together in each market.

“I believe that mobile can save broadcast TV,” Lawson told me. Now there’s a goal we can both agree on. I’m not 100 percent behind the Mobile500 Alliance, but now at least I have a bit of cautious optimism about its work. We’ll see.

Update, sort of: Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe experimented a bit with some mobile TV devices from CES. He had four channels available in Boston versus one here in Denver, but I don’t think he thought it was worth it. YouTube-quality video, loss of signal in tunnels, and some occasional above-ground signal dropouts were among his findings. My optimism is getting more cautious all the time. Here, go watch Bray’s video report.