As if phones didn't already have enough features, within the next few years, the mobile industry is going to add another major one: broadcast TV. The service will be consumer-led, but could there be other applications for business?
The leading standard for mobile TV, DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting - Handhelds), has emerged from Nokia and been standardised by the European standards group ETSI, as EN 302 304 (paid download here).
DVB-H means building a new radio receiver into the handset, tuned to whatever spectrum is going to be used for mobile video broadcasting. It sends 15 Mbit/s of data per 8MHz channel, and adds error correction to compensate for possible poor reception.
Nokia has created DVB-H handsets - basically its 7710 device with an add-on radio module. Integrated DVB-H devices are due next year. Other handset makers including Samsung have prototypes and are expected to follow suit.
At first DVB-H will only be in expensive handsets. As time passes, it will become cheaper, until the DVB-H capability costs as little as adding an FM radio receiver.
Mainly for consumers
DVB-H trials, in Helsinki, Oxford and about fifteen other places, have focussed on consumer services, in which users pay between 5 and 15 for up to 20 TV channels.
In the US, Pittsburgh has a trial service provided by Crown Castle, which has a nationwide licence for spectrum at 1.5GHz.
Mobile phones bring several benefits for a service like mobile TV. Firstly, they are in users' pockets already, so vendors don't have to sell a whole new device. Secondly, they can use the cellular network as a communications channel for services like interactive TV. And finally, because users are already paying a mobile bill, it is easy to bill them for extra services, and users will (operators hope) be willing to pay to see TV on their mobile.
Alternatively, some services may be free-to-air, supported by adverts. The broadcast and mobile industries will be jockeying for position as they get together in this new example of convergence.
What about the spectrum?
There are currently no bands set aside for DVB-H broadcasting. However, in the short term, the technology is similar enough to DAB (digital audio broadcasting) to use DAB bands. In the long term, the bandwidth dividend when analogue TV broadcasts are shut down (around 2012) will provide more than enough spectrum for broadcast to mobiles.
As operators scent money, licences for spectrum that can be used for DVB-H may be auctioned, and prices could be high. However, the UK is unlikely to see a repeat of the "3G auction" of 2000, for at least one reason. Ofcom has become technology neutral, and will want to sell spectrum without requiring any particular use.
Mobile phone users can already see TV programs on their handsets if they want to. For instance, Orange's MobiTV system broadcasts CNN and ITV news over the 3G network, to users with the Nokia 6680 handset.
However, using a two-way data network for broadcast data is wasteful and does not scale well. MobiTV is on a free trial at the moment, but the actual cost will be 15, for a limited time (24 hours viewing per week).
Other competition includes Qualcomm's MediaFlo, which the company is hoping to get off the ground.
In Korea, services exist using DMB (digital multimedia broadcast) and there are proposals for S-DMB (satellite digital multimedia broadcast), which would use a terrestrial repeater network to relay signals from satellites. DVB-H promoters label DMB as being too close to DAB. Designed for video, DVB-H gives more data per channel, say its backers.
Any other applications?
Broadcasting to handsets could be very useful for information such as traffic and weather reports, or even warnings and emergency information.
Like other broadcast services, it may also be possible to piggyback other data on it, perhaps including software upgrades for mobile devices, or updates to customer or product databases in devices carried by mobile workers.
Business impact - negative
Overall, however, the impact on business productivity is likely to be negative, as consumer services will eat into work time that employers have started to expect from mobile employees.
DVB-H is intended as a way to get users to consume more media content, at times when they are away from home. "The commute to work work will be a new prime time," says Markus Lindqvist, of Nokia Ventures Organisation.
TV content aimed directly at people trapped in trains might make them less inclined to pull out their laptops and work on their way home.