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Mobile television: technological and regulatory issues
Peter Curwen Jason Whalley

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Peter Curwen Jason Whalley, (2008),"Mobile television: technological and regulatory issues", info, Vol. 10 Iss 1 pp. 40 - 64 Permanent link to this document:
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Mobile television: technological and
regulatory issues


Peter Curwen and Jason Whalley

Peter Curwen is Visiting
Professor of
Telecommunications and
Jason Whalley is a Senior
Lecturer, both at the
University of Strathclyde,
Glasgow, UK.

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to analyse technological and regulatory issues arising from the introduction of TV services on mobile handsets.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper looks at the various technological solutions to the provision of mobile TV and records the progress to date of trials of these technologies. It also examines the regulatory framework in the EU and certain individual countries and analyses the effects of spectrum shortages.

Findings – The paper finds that the existence of competing, incompatible technologies, the constraints on the availability of suitable spectrum, the issue of what content to broadcast and the difficulties of persuading customers to pay for it are holding back the widespread dissemination of mobile TV, but only on a temporary basis.

Originality/value – This paper is the first detailed attempt to investigate this topic. Keywords Television, Mobile communication systems, Regulation, European Union Paper type Research paper

he television is an all-pervasive device, albeit one that in the vast majority of cases is fixed-wire. Broadcasts to TV sets are point-to-multipoint, and may be either terrestrial or satellite. Generally speaking, a user also has a video recorder and/or a DVD, and increasingly a digital box, so a TV set does not tend to be viewed in isolation even as a piece of hardware while the associated software is effectively beyond count. In principle, therefore, TV programmes should provide an obvious source of content to be downloaded onto a mobile handset, another device that is utterly familiar to vast numbers of people even if not all are comfortable with the relatively sophisticated services that the most modern handsets are capable of handling.


Received 20 April 2007
Revised 10 July 2007
Accepted 3 August 2007


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Downloading content to mobile handsets ‘‘on-net’’ via a high-speed data network can be effected either point-to-point – streamed to an individual handset via a conventional mobile network – known as ‘‘unicast’’ or point-to-multipoint – via a broadcasting network as with conventional TV and radio – known as ‘‘multicast’’. Virtually all handsets now come equipped with a capability to handle relatively low-speed data sent point-to-point using technology based upon GSM, such as GPRS, or upon CDMA, such as cdma2000 1xRTT. This is not well-suited for visual imagery beyond still photography, but increasingly consumers are turning to handsets with much faster download speeds that meet the definition of so-called 3G, typically the W-CDMA (UMTS) or cdma2000 1xEV-DO variants, and these largely do away with the problem of jerkiness. Furthermore, the quality of screen imagery, and in many cases the size of screens, has improved very rapidly, and a modern handset can be expected to provide a crystal-clear image[1]. Given an almost universal familiarity with TV and mobile telephony and the increasing prevalence of handsets capable

VOL. 10 NO. 1 2008, pp. 40-64, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1463-6697

DOI 10.1108/14636690810850157

of high-speed data transfer, it is hardly surprising, therefore, that mobile TV is seen in some quarters as the next ‘‘killer application’’.


However, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. The idea of mobile – in the sense of portable – TV, as against TV viewed via a mobile handset[2], is nothing new. Much hyped when first launched, it has virtually died the death commercially. One obvious problem is that a (miniature) TV set on the move tends to suffer from signal degradation, requiring much fiddling with the antenna to maintain a decent picture quality. Furthermore, it is inconvenient to carry around.

In contrast, almost everyone, at least in relatively advanced societies, already carries around a mobile device as a matter of course, so adding a TV capability is on the face of it no more or less of an issue than the addition of a camera or MP3 player[3]. In principle, therefore, the addition of TV to mobile devices offers advantages to everyone concerned: The consumer gets an additional access to TV programmes; the network operator gets a new channel; the broadcaster gets a new audience; and the equipment manufacturer gets new high-value-added orders. But although mobile TV has a good many things going for it, the usual issues first need to be addressed, namely; how is this service to be delivered, who is to deliver it, how is it to be regulated and can anyone actually make any money out of providing it. What follows attempts to answer these questions but is directed primarily towards addressing the issue as to which technology or technologies is/are best suited to the provision of mobile TV.

Some basic marketing issues
Most television takes the form of so-called ‘‘free-to-air’’ programming. This is something of a misnomer because it is paid for, in practice, either via a licence fee or by advertisers. However, consumers are increasingly prepared to pay for additional services via the acquisition of a digital box and an accompanying subscription either for a single programme or for a bundle of programmes. This is the model for the classic, and very successful, satellite service provided by BSkyB in the UK and elsewhere. Furthermore, consumers are increasingly demanding the means to personalise their viewing: they do not want merely to access subscription channels broadcast at specified times but at times of their own choosing. Since that facility is available on television sets, why, it may be asked, should it not also be available on mobile devices?

Interestingly, this suggests that viewing in real-time is less important than originally expected, especially in relation to mobile TV. It is already well-established that there is a (profitable) demand for football highlights, but relatively few fans actually want to watch an entire match on a mobile handset just in order to see the goals (if there are any) scored in real time. However, send a message to tell a fan that a goal has just been scored and can be viewed retrospectively, or package up the exciting bits within half an hour of the end of the match and the service should prove very popular.

A logical development that provides personalisation and highlights is already available in Japan where consumers can arrange to download a selection of material overnight to be browsed through during the following day as desired. This is similar to the service available in modern jet airliners although in the latter case the choice is more restricted even if more immediately available. The downside for operators is that they must second-guess the type of content that will be chosen (and paid for). The safest line to take is undoubtedly to rely upon content that is known to be popular – excerpts from ‘‘Friends’’ anyone? – and to avoid undue experimentation. Naturally, in the case of mobile TV this may necessitate reformatting4 since conventional programmes typically run for at least half an hour, and this is probably too long. The question then is whether to run the programmes in their original format, cut them down or produce entirely new (abbreviated) versions for mobile viewing. In the short term, experimentation is likely to be the order of the day. A number of studies indicate that e10-15 a month is the relevant range for unlimited consumption (see the following), especially bearing in mind that it is the relatively young age groups that will be doing most of the consuming. The Orange service, discussed below,

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VOL. 10 NO. 1 2008 info PAGE 41

offers a capped twenty hours of viewing per month, but the reality is that spending over one whole waking day a month watching TV on a tiny screen[4] is probably more than enough for anyone other than the most hardened mobile addicts[5]. One way to provide a cheaper package is to induce consumers to accept advertisements popping up periodically. It is unclear how acceptable this will become, but what is fairly certain is that any such advertisements will need to be viewed as entertainment as against the conveyance of information. The series of advertisements put out by Orange during 2005[6], which are viewed as humorous (at least within the company) provides an illustration of what may work in this regard.


A further issue relates to cross-border roaming. The classic time when consumers might want to watch programmes on their handsets is when they are away from home, especially if abroad on vacation. However, the facility to broadcast across borders involves the extensive negotiation of rights, and this is going to take a considerable time with which to get to grips.

Before progressing on to discuss the various technologies that can deliver mobile television, it is first necessary to comment briefly on the issue of standards. According to Tassey (2000), p. 588), an industry standard ‘‘is a set of specifications to which all elements of products, processes, formats or procedures under its jurisdiction must conform’’. Not only do standards provide a way to specify quality (Idem.) but they also provide a means to encode, store and communicate information (Williams et al., 2003) as well as to specify the necessary properties to ensure that complementary products work with one another. This is echoed by Funk (2002) who draws attention to the role of standards in defining critical interfaces between complementary products in a wide range of network industries such as telecommunications and broadcasting, while Windrum (2004) notes that standards have enabled complex technologies like the Internet to emerge without companies having to co-ordinate their products through formal agreements.

From the literature, it is possible to identify a variety of ways through which standards emerge. David and Greenstein (1990) identify four different standardisation processes. Market-based competition may lead to the emergence of either sponsored (proprietary) or un-sponsored (open) standards. In addition, standards may emerge through agreement within voluntary organisations or government promulgation. In contrast, Gandal et al. (2003) identify three different ways through which a standard may emerge. A standard may be set primarily by the market and can be proprietary in nature. In other words, a de facto standard emerges. Standards may also emerge from voluntary industry agreements or be imposed. If the standard is imposed, this may be by a national body or as the consequence of agreement reached at a regional or global level.

A distinction is often made between de facto and de jure standards, with the former being a standard picked by the market and the latter a standard chosen by committee. While Lea and Hall (2004) note the definitional ambiguity of de facto and de jure, Funk (2002) argues that such a distinction is of increasingly less value – as companies recognise the value of standards they have begun to collaborate in the development of de jure standards that subsequently compete against one another in the market. As a consequence, Funk (2002) proposes a hybrid model that combines the market and committee approaches. As Liebowitz and Margolis (2002), p. 83) among others note, a standard is generally more useful the more people use it. The user of a standard benefits from the presence of fellow users through, for example, having more mobile phone subscribers to call or enjoying lower handset prices due to manufacturing scale economies. Regardless of the benefits that may be derived from using one standard or another, there is the possibility that users could be locked into using one standard when alternatives exist. Liebowitz and Margolis (2002), p. 85) note that it is possible for users to be locked into the inferior technology due to the impact of network effects on user choice. Perhaps the most cited example of an inferior technology locking in users is that of the QWERTY keyboard (David, 1985), though more recently it has been argued that QWERTY is not, in fact, inferior to the Dvorak keyboard as initially suggested (Howells, 2005, pp. 71-76). The alleged superiority of Betamax over VHS has

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PAGE 42 info VOL. 10 NO. 1 2008

also been questioned, with Liebowitz and Margolis (2002) noting several areas where Betamax was deficient and Rohlfs (2001) noting that neither was superior across the board.


The emergence of VHS as the dominant standard is sometimes used to illustrate the ‘‘winner takes all’’ nature of many high technology markets. While rival technologies may emerge and co-exist for a short while, when one is able to grow faster than the others it will eventually emerge as the dominant standard. In this case, after a period of co-existence, VHS grew faster than Betamax to become the dominant standard with the availability of pre-recorded content on VHS contributing in no small part to its success (Howells, 2005, p. 78). A final point is make is that competition between technologies can be influenced by both serendipity and path dependency. Howells (2005) suggests that the early dominance of the personal computer market that resulted from the serendipitous combination of IBM with Microsoft was subsequently reinforced as software was developed. As Microsoft developed its operating system, its strategy of backward compatibility with existing software encouraged not only its adoption but also limited the ability of users to switch to rival operating systems. If the rival operating system is superior, then the choice illustrates what Liebowitz and Margolis (1995) call ‘‘third-degree path dependence’’; that is, path dependency where an initial decision results in an inefficient outcome being chosen. They also identify two other forms of path dependence, with one being where choices are seen to be inefficient with hindsight (second-degree) and the other where no inefficiencies occur (first-degree).

Competing technologies
The simplest way to provide mobile TV is to stream content along a high-speed data network. However, such networks are by no means commonplace outside Europe, provide patchy coverage even in countries where they are available and run at average speeds well below their theoretical maxima. The situation is certainly improving, and considerably faster networks based largely on High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) began to appear during 2006. Pending their widespread introduction, it is evident that the service is bound to be somewhat expensive because of the download time involved and could potentially clog up the networks. For this reason, it is desirable to send TV to mobile devices via a different method, independent of existing mobile networks. To distinguish this from on-net unicast and multicast provision, this can conveniently be labelled as ‘‘broadcast’’. However, care needs to be taken with the use of terminology because multicast services are themselves broadcast but over a 3G/HSPA network.

The favoured solution is Digital Video Broadcast(ing) Handheld (DVB-H) technology whereby a TV signal is beamed to an additional digital TV receiver within the handset. This is based upon the well-established DVB-Terrestrial (DVB-T) standard with modifications to support small battery-driven devices. The technology for integrating IP into the DVB broadcast also exists in the form of IP-datacast (IPDC)[7]. This makes it possible to use the same streaming video protocols (for example, MPEG-based) used on the Internet for DVB broadcasts.

DVB-H is currently associated primarily with developments in Europe. The European Commission, following the pattern previously used successfully in respect of, for example, GSM, determined to establish a common standard that could be imposed across the EU, and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) accordingly adopted DVB-H as a European standard (EN 302 304) at the end of 2004. However, DVB-H is not universally popular, and has not been chosen in South Korea, which, as ever, is at the forefront of technological developments. There, the favoured solution is its home-grown Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) service, based upon the Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) standard used for digital radio (Shin, 2006)[8]. The underlying strategy in choosing a proprietary route was not, however, to keep the technology in-house. Rather, it was that the initial service, launched as satellite DMB (S-DMB), would be followed by terrestrial DMB (T-DMB) and then exported to Europe.

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VOL. 10 NO. 1 2008 info PAGE 43

In Japan there is also a desire to promote a home-grown standard although this does not preclude the possibility that other standards such as DVB-H and DMB, which are undergoing trials there, will also establish a foothold. This domestic technology is known as Terrestrial Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting (ISDB-T), and for the time being at least there appears to be little interest in establishing it as a global standard[9]. First adopted in December 2003, it is supported by the Japanese Association of Radio Industries and Business (ARIB). ISDB-T is designed such that each channel is divided into 13 segments. High-Definition Television (HDTV) content fills twelve segments leaving the thirteenth free for broadcasts to mobiles – hence what is popularly known as the ‘‘One-seg[ment]’’ strategy (1-SEG)[10].


The USA, for its part, usually opts for technological competition, which does have the downside that the end-result can be too many choices, none of which attain the requisite scale. In this case, while it is open to technology of overseas origin, it has a domestic champion, Qualcomm, which is advocating its proprietary FLO technology. DVB-H and FLO (Forward Link Only), which is a specification for Terrestrial Mobile Media Multicast (standardised as TIA-1099) are similar in that both are based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and both are designed to transmit roughly 15 frames of video per second to a Quarter VGA (QVGA) screen. Furthermore, both aim to provide four hours of continuous viewing from a single battery charge. At first sight, DVB-H appears to hold the advantage since it is being trialled by numerous operators on a worldwide basis, with each independently arranging equipment and content deals. In contrast, MediaFLO Technologies and MediaFLO USA, which are both operations set up by Qualcomm, are not only developing its core technology and chipsets in the former case but acquiring spectrum[11] and building its own network in the latter (Smith, 2007). Qualcomm’s plan is to replicate its marketing techniques for CDMA – that is, to licence FLO technology and sell FLO chipsets to other equipment vendors. Qualcomm claims that, for any given spectrum band, FLO will provide twice the coverage or twice the number of channels (Fitchard, 2005), and if that proves to be the case – for now its status is merely an unproven claim[12] – FLO may prove hard to resist.

There are other possibilities – for example, China has opted for STiMi (see below) and Singapore has chosen the Eureka 147 standard – but the main choice facing network operators is whether to stick to streaming via 3G/HSPA or adopt DVB-H, DMB or FLO or, indeed, any combination there...

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