Qualcomm Inc.’s mobile TV service has gone dark and with it a new round of questions have cropped up about the future of mobile TV as a whole. Will there ever be a year that defines mobile TV? What will it take to finally deliver mass adoption? Americans love their TV, without a doubt, but that has yet to translate to our mobile devices at least in the traditional sense. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mobile applications that deliver video and TV programming at a good rate, but widespread mobile TV services still face an uphill battle. Still, groups like Mobile Content Venture, the Open Mobile Video Coalition and others are trying to revive broadcaster and TV network interests in the mobile channel. As these groups proceed, it would be worth their while to reflect on what went wrong with Qualcomm’s big bet on mobile TV.
Over a period of 45 months, FLO TV only managed to rack up 1 million customers, surely far short of what the company intended when it invested $683 million for spectrum that reaches a potential 300 million people between 2003 and 2008. The company poured perhaps an even greater amount of cash into building out the network, lining up content deals with TV networks and operations. In the end, Qualcomm still pulled away with a decent return on all that investment when it agreed to sell the spectrum to AT&T Mobility for $1.92 billion. Since then, a group of smaller carriers, organizations and Dish Network Corp. have filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commissionto block AT&T Mobility’s purchase of the 700 MHz spectrum from Qualcomm. A decision on the transaction is still pending. John Fletcher, senior analyst at SNL Kagan, said FLO TV proved that consumers are not willing to pay monthly service fees in the double digits for appointment-based TV. “They were probably also just a little bit early,” he added. “I always like to compare what’s going on in the United States with what’s going on in Korea because the Koreans just eat it up. One in two Koreans is watching mobile TV,” Fletcher said. And yet, the free-to-air terrestrial service there is still losing money. “Our underlying philosophy is that people love motion picture content,” he said. But free-to-air handheld TV has been available for decades and it never took off like other services. So just when, if ever, will consumers embrace mobile TV on a grand scale? “It’s more up to consumers and their timeline on things,” Fletcher said. If consumers are ever to jump on board to the scale they have with television and video online and in the home, broadcasters and network studios will have to line up some strategic business deals with major carriers and device makers. Industry watchers will be looking for such deals to be announced in a couple weeks at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas.