Raymond Snoddy on Media: Coming soon to the smallest screen

While the futurologists burbled at the recent Cambridge Royal Television Society convention, an interesting exhibition ran throughout the proceedings.

There were plenty of amusing gadgets, but the star performers were the High Definition Television (HDTV) sets, which offer clearer pictures and sound. If the England team manages to qualify for the World Cup finals, HDTV will become a necessity of life by next summer.

Eat your heart out all those who recently bought a flat-screen TV that is not HD-enabled - and I'm talking personally here.

For all the joys of temporary Cambridge exhibitions, it is Oxford that will attract attention in the next few weeks following the launch of a full mobile phone TV trial.

Technology has a way of creeping up, barely noticed, even when the ideas involved have been around for ages. Sports and news clips, even streaming TV news channels, have been with us for months. Then, suddenly, 16 full channels of TV are delivered to 3G mobile phones in the Oxford area.

All the main terrestrial channels will be available, as well as BBC News 24, Sky News, Sky Sports News and Discovery.

It is a remarkable achievement, although it is not time to book a big campaign just yet. The service, which involves a signal beamed to a digital receiver in the phone, brings together Arqiva, formerly NTL Broadcast, Nokia and O2 as well as the main UK broadcasters. But it is only a four-month trial involving about 400 users.

It is really a showcase for the next generation of mobile kit, rather than current market reality. The users will not be paying extra for the TV service, just their existing mobile tariff charges.

It is rather reminiscent of BT's great Colchester trial of TV channels transmitted down the phone lines. The technology worked, but more than a decade later Homechoice is still struggling to make a business out of it and only now is BT gearing up for a national broadband TV service.

The outcome of this trial could be different, as it is in the interests of many sectors of the communications industry that mobile media be made to work.

The desperation of the 3G operators to find something - anything - that can be offered on a handset is obvious. There is still the small matter of the £23bn they paid for the licences lurking on balance sheets.

We are looking at a big 3G push this Christmas, by Vodafone in particular, and the likelihood that all the operators will try to move us on to 3G phones when existing handsets come up for replacement. As a result, a potentially interesting media platform will be created.

At the same time, commercial broadcasters are desperate to find a way of reaching the youth market, which is less and less likely to be found sitting on the sofa in front of a TV, whether HD or not.

There is the first glimmer of hope that mobile content could take up at least some of the slack. ITN is enthusiastic about the performance of its tailored news and entertainment packages so far.

The marketing community will be equally enthusiastic to have a new way of reaching young audiences.

Oxford is just one of the mobile TV trials under way around the world following a successful test in Helsinki.

But we are a long way from the finished article, and regulators will need to release additional spectrum before anything significant can happen.

At least the trials ought to show whether consumers want to have 16 TV channels available on their mobiles, while viewing choices would also begin to give a hint of how the economics might stack up.

30 SECONDS ON... MOBILE PHONE TV

- Arqiva trialled a mobile TV transmission system in Singapore in 2000. Three years ago, it conducted an initial mobile TV trial in Oxford, and last year ran another in Cambridge.

- The technology in the Oxford trial is called DVB-H (Digital Video Broad-casting, Handheld). The format has been tested in several countries, including the US, France and Germany.

- DVB-H is one of two possible formats for mobile phone TV, the other being DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting). DMB is being championed in several countries, primarily because it is less of a drain on the phone battery.

- Mobile operators expect to have up to 51m TV viewers by 2009.

- Those taking part in the trial will have access to terrestrial TV, plus British Eurosport, Cartoon Network, CNN, Discovery Channel, MTV, Sky News, Sky Sports, Sky Travel and short-film channel ShortsTV.

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