Raymond Snoddy on media: Industry eyes may turn to mobile TV

An interesting online auction is about to get under way. No, not on eBay, but at Ofcom.

The communications regulator is auctioning off a chunk of spectrum, and the levels of interest could give a hefty clue as to how great the level of commitment really is to mobile television.

Naturally, being a very modern regulator, Ofcom is media-neutral - to use a fashionable phrase - in this enterprise. A range of possible uses has been identified, including satellite digital radio, broadband wireless access, high-speed internet on the move and mobile TV.

It's up to the operators to decide what they think is the best possible use of the space and bid accordingly. Market forces will decide.

Satellite radio is already big in the US, and you can make a strong case for the usefulness of high-speed internet on the move.

However, the auction could be a symbolic moment in the battle to prove that mobile TV can really hack it. It has been a promising medium for some years now, without quite managing to set the world alight.

The tone was set by BT research a couple of years ago, which found that more mobile phone users were interested in listening to digital radio than watching mobile TV. There was also an additional finding - that users were prepared to pay only £5 a month to receive their favourite shows.

Yet early research on services that are neither widely available nor properly established is notoriously unreliable. Somewhere in the archives there must be a survey demonstrating that very few people were actually interested in text messaging.

There are some straws in the wind, other than the Ofcom auction, suggesting that 2008 could be a breakthrough year for mobile TV.

There is more interest at media conferences, and around the world there are signs of significant growth.

Earlier this year, for example, Orange in France applied for two mobile digital television channels - the first an Orange sports channel, which launched on 3G in September, the second a channel aimed at the 15- to 35-year-olds.

Earlier this month, consultants Jupiter provided positive predictions on mobile advertising. At the moment, most mobile advertising is based on SMS, but Jupiter believes that by 2010, streamed and broadcast TV services will become the most lucrative channels for mobile ads.

The consultants went on to predict that spending on mobile TV advertising will grow from $335m (£168m) this year to more than $2.5bn by 2013.

This week, Telegent, manufacturers of single chips for mobile TV, made some optimistic noises about the market. It claims that five or six new operators are currently planning mobile TV launches.

A number of interests are converging here. The mobile operators clearly need a new source of revenue. Conventional broadcasters must have an interest in distracting the young from their obsession with social networks. For advertisers, meanwhile, mobile TV could combine some of the branding power of network TV with more precise targeting.

The debate continues on where mobile TV will fit into the hierarchy of media, as the viewing area will always be tiny compared with the experience of watching in high-definition on 50-inch screens.

By next month we should at least know how serious the mobile TV pioneers are, and whether they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

- Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC Television's Newswatch

30 SECONDS ON ... OFCOM SPECTRUM AUCTIONS

- Ofcom's first spectrum auction, for frequency bands 1781.7-1785MHz and 1876.7-1880MHz, took place on 20 April 2006. It awarded 12 technology-neutral licences for a total of £3.8m, with T-Mobile submitting the top bid of £1.5m.

- The upcoming auction will be the regulator's fifth, and will release the 1452-1492MHz 'L Band', which is suitable for satellite and terrestrial digital radio, mobile TV and wireless broadband.

- Ofcom aims to sell 16 1.7Mhz blocks for a minimum £50,000 each, and one 12.5Mhz block for a minimum of £150,000, bringing the total reserve price for the L Band to £950,000.

- Approved participants in the L Band auction include Adolphus, Arqiva, ePortal, MLL Telecom, Qualcomm, The Joint Radio Company, Vectone Network and WorldSpace.

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