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Free TV—on your cell phone?

Consumer Reports News: August 18, 2008 05:08 PM

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Here's an interesting story from the Associated Press this morning regarding television on cell phones.

U.S. TV broadcasters are working on a new standard (called ATSC-M/H) that will allow cell phones (and other mobile devices) to receive and display over-the-air digital TV signals, which nearly all stations will be using by February 2009 as part of the transition to DTV.

TV on your cell phone isn't entirely new. U.S. cell phone service providers have been offering—for extra monthly fees—TV "channels" (such as ESPN and CNN) on certain model phones, like the Samsung SCH-u620 (Verizon), the LG Vu (AT&T) and the Samsung Instinct (Sprint Nextel). In fact, "live" TV is one of the Instinct's jazzy features that make it a much more entertaining touch-screen phone than the iPhone. (See our "head-to-head" match-up, "iPhone 3G vs. Instinct," and video for more information.)

But such services aren't beamed directly to the phones, but carried via the carrier's cellphone network. By potentially cutting out the carrier as middleman, ATSC-M/H would potentially allow next-generation mobile devices to receive free digital TV. (Like current "off-the-air" analog broadcasts, the new "free TV" service could be supported by advertisers.)

There are obviously many questions that remain unanswered, since the standard won't be completed until early next year. (And of course, you'll need a new mobile device capable of receiving ATSC-M/H broadcasts, which may happen by the end of 2009.) But some of the more interesting ones off the top of my head:

  • Is it worth the bother? One of our Blog readers thought it would be great to have a portable, digital TV as part of an emergency survival kit. But would you want to receive—and watch—live TV on such tiny screens for long? (Remember, cell phone screens rarely get any bigger than 3- or 4-inches diagonally. Perhaps that's one of the reason why, as the AP story states, less than 3 percent of American cell phone owners watch videos on their cell phones now.)
  • Will U.S. carriers allow it? Adding ATSC-M/H technology shouldn't be too difficult for broadcasters and mobile device makers. But would U.S. wireless carriers be willing to sell mobile phones with a free service that draws subscribers away from the $10 to $15 per month "pay TV" services they currently offer?

What do you think? Have you ever subscribed to the pay-TV service from your cell phone service provider? Would you want free TV on your cell phone or other mobile device, such as an iPod? Weigh in on the comments section below.

—Paul Eng

Paul Eng

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