US operator MetroPCS is partnering with Mobile Content Venture (MCV) and Samsung to bring mobile broadcast TV to subscribers in 2012. The operator will support the Dyle Mobile TV service, which will be preloaded onto devices – the first of which will be a high-end Android smartphone from Samsung.

MCV is an alliance of US broadcasters, who have clubbed together to upgrade TV stations to deliver content to portable devices. At launch, MCV expects to offer mobile video for 72 stations in 32 markets, covering 50 percent of the US population.

But going on the recent history of mobile TV, one would be forgiven for thinking it’s unlikely the service will take off. Mobile broadcast services use dedicated networks, separate from mobile broadband infrastructure, to deliver content. These networks are expensive to put in place and an array of standards (DVB-H, DMB, and CMMB) have failed to overcome a lack of consumer interest.

Qualcomm developed its own mobile broadcast technology in the US called FLO, which used a subscription model and dedicated mobile programming that failed to capture the imagination of consumers. The service never gained traction and was wound down in 2010, with Qualcomm selling the 700Mhz spectrum it was using for the service to AT&T last month.

With insufficient consumer demand, it has been difficult to make mobile broadcast services viable in either subscription or advertising-based form. Suitable handsets have also remained expensive, as the economies of scale to drive prices down weren’t created.

But things might be about to change with a number of factors coming together to make this a viable business proposition in the future. Judging by the significant use of video services such as YouTube on mobile devices, there is clearly a growing demand for mobile video content. Devices such as smartphones and tablets are also better suited to multimedia consumption, and customers are availing of this. For the first time, there may be an audience out there for mobile TV.

One of the traditional arguments against mobile broadcast has been that increasing availability of 3G networks and complementary technology such as WiFi and WiMAX negates the need for separate networks for mobile TV content. And with the arrival of LTE in many markets, this argument could be strengthened.

However, these networks don’t have infinite capacity, something that high-bandwidth video will expose sooner rather than later. Some operators have already warned that their networks will be at capacity in a matter of years – even with the addition of LTE – and are already looking at ways to offload data from their networks. The addition of networks specifically for mobile multimedia could provide another means to offload bandwidth-heavy services, making them increasingly attractive to mobile operators.

The combination of these two factors could make mobile broadcast more cost effective than it has ever been before.  And once operators get on board, they could subsidise devices equipped with mobile TV technology to make them more attractive to consumers.

New mobile services have historically often failed due to a lack of operator support and mobile broadcast was looking like it may fall into this category, with no obvious position in the value chain for operators. But as the mobile industry evolves, there is clearly scope for operators to play a part in mobile TV – and MetroPCS is one of the latest operators to take the plunge.

The decision to work with MCV could be a masterstroke. As it encompasses 15 major broadcast groups, MCV is able to use a modified version of ATSC technology, which has been previously used for digital terrestrial TV broadcasts. This makes the provision of the network much more cost effective.

Meanwhile, the presence of broadcasters including Fox, Pearl, NBC and Univision should ensure users of the MetroPCS service can get content they actually want, and support from major electronics manufacturers Dell, LG and Samsung should provide an ecosystem to make mobile broadcast viable.

Mobile broadcast could be about to overcome the obstacles that have plagued it until now. The time could be right for it to finally have an impact.

Tim Ferguson

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members