Fishing in the video stream
On Sept. 30, a bit of minor U.S. political history was made. For the first time, the presidential debates were broadcast live to cell phones using the Sprint PCS network and Idetic's MobiTV video streaming service. The broadcast didn't get much attention, and it certainly didn't have the broad-sweeping effects on presidential politics as did the first televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. However, it did give the handful of Sprint customers who watched it a taste of what's to come as video services eke their way into wireless networks.
Led by Sprint and AT&T Wireless, U.S. carriers in the last year have been quietly launching consumer video services over their 2.5G networks. Both Sprint and AT&T Wireless are offering RealNetworks rTV video clip and Idetic's MobiTV television streaming services, and though neither carrier has hyped either service like they have, say, picture messaging, video is starting to have an effect on the American popular imagination. In polls conducted in the first quarter by Advanis, video capabilities weren't even a factor in almost all consumers' choices of handsets. But the same poll three months later found video capabilities in a handset half as desirable as an embedded digital camera, by far the most popular data feature in handsets today.
"We're clearly in an early market phase," said Mark Donovan, director of mobile services and marketing for RealNetworks. "We're learning from the early adopters. But if you look at the investment carriers have made in their networks, you can tell that they believe that these kinds of value-added services is where they'll make their money."
The two largest players in video have clearly chosen different strategies to video delivery. RealNetworks rTV is taking a clips approach, aggregating a constantly updating menu of new sports, entertainment, news and financial content, much of it optimized specifically for the small-screen form factor and network capabilities of a wireless service. Meanwhile Idetic's MobiTV is following a more traditional video entertainment model, airing a combination of live television and video-on-demand (VOD) clips from traditional broadcast and cable network sources.
So far much of the buzz has been around MobiTV. Though the content provider has not released any subscriber numbers, analysts and other industry experts have commented on the popularity of its live streaming service despite the fact that it - until recent a upgrade - was running at paltry two-to-four frames a second - the equivalent of a fast slide show with true streaming audio. But the service seems to have latched onto wireless users' need for immediacy: Customers will sacrifice picture quality for the ability to see an event or broadcast they otherwise wouldn't be able to access.
"We clearly hit a home run," said Phillip Alvelda, CEO of Idetic. "We had some trepidation - when we first launched - about our frame rates, but we found it wasn't a concern for most of our customers. Even if it's not the quality of what you're going to get on your big-screen TV, it's the best you can get when you're on the move. There's value in that."
MobiTV has found that customers are willing to pay anywhere from $5 to $8 per month for the service in addition to the costs of their data plan. While Alvelda isn't discounting VOD services - in fact, a good deal of MobiTV's content isn't live - he said that timeliness is a key factor in wireless video delivery. If immediacy weren't a factor, people would get their content from other sources, he said.
"When you heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Centers, you didn't wait until the next day to read about it in the paper," Alvelda said. "You rushed to the nearest TV."
While RealNetworks isn't offering live TV feeds, it's definitely focusing on timeliness. It claims its rTV is posting four new hours of content every day, most of which is in 30-second to several-minute clips customers can easily view and digest while on the go. When not using their phones for communications purposes, consumers are interested in getting entertainment as a distraction, so consumer video offerings should be tailored for those needs, said Ryc Brownrigg, general manager of consumer products at RealNetworks.
"I don't think people will sit there and watch thirty minutes of news on their phones, but they will watch a three-minute clip or download a three-minute song," Brownrigg said.
RealNetworks' focus encompasses much more than content. Real is still primarily a technologist and has optimized its line of Helix content delivery servers and RealPlayer clients for the mobile world. While it has landed numerous contracts for its content services with major carriers in both the U.S. and Europe, it has expended just as much energy in getting Helix servers into carrier networks and RealPlayer into Nokia, Motorola, Siemens and Samsung handsets. It even recently announced a deal with Qualcomm to get its core multimedia technology embedded into the CDMA vendor's multimedia chipsets.
There is little argument that if mobile video streaming is to be successful, it will achieve its popularity over 3G networks. In fact, mobile video is often cited as one of the key drivers to bringing 3G to the consumer masses, as few other consumer apps require capacities beyond those already provided by 2.5G networks.
While there is much debate over whether video running at a low frame rate and low bit-stream is really a full-fledged streaming video service rather than an audio feed with supporting pictures, a big question looming for carriers and content providers alike isn't whether 2.5G networks can market and support a popular paid streaming service but whether they really want to. Network capacity is still a very big issue. More users downloading video off any given cell will tax the network's already limited resources. There have already been instances in Asia where streaming services became so popular, carriers had to jack up prices to scare customers off of its overcrowded networks.
"2.5G is the bare minimum for pay video services," said Joel Quejada, North American technology manager for Nokia. "Your technology may be pushed to its limits delivering it, but if the content is important or valuable enough, customers will be willing to pay for it."
For vendors like Nokia, ensuring video is a success is key to their businesses. Video and other multimedia services are key to 3G growth on the consumer side and therefore the drivers in the next round of handset replacement. Quejada said the technology is already standard in smart-phones and high-end terminals, and it's making its way into the mid-range devices. Carriers have placed much of the blame for not deploying video or other high-end consumer 3G services on the lack of handset availability, and Quejada said Nokia is willing to shoulder part of that blame. But soon, he added, carriers won't be able to make those claims. It will be up to them to launch the services and develop the business models to get those services to their end customers.
"Video is getting to the point that it will be supported on the majority of our devices," Quejada said. "Hopefully, the networks and content will be able to keep up."
Nokia's recent advertising and marketing blitzes that highlight its handsets' video capabilities are a large part of the reason why consumers' awareness of mobile video has risen in recent months, said Dave Cosgrave, managing analyst for Advanis' Mobile Metrix wireless research program. But Cosgrave pointed out that consumer's aren't overly excited about paying for a video service. Its polling data in the second quarter showed that only 11% to 13% of wireless users would be interested in a paid video streaming service.
"It's pretty low, and it's not growing," he said.
That 11% to 13%, however, could be a very viable market for carriers if presented the right way. The demographic tends to be the creme of the technology-inclined. Most already use wireless data services of some kind. Three-quarters of them have broadband connections at home. And, most surprising, one out of three of them said they would be interested in a video service paid for with advertising, not a monthly fee.
"Our research plainly shows that this same group that is willing to use streaming is willing to suffer through commercials to do it," Cosgrave said.