Saturday, July 02, 2005

Mobile TV: The Korean experience

By Eden Estopace The Philippine STAR

The cellphone craze may have hit Filipinos hard. But the reality is that it may take a long time for the country to fully participate in the mobile lifestyle of our more advanced neighbors.

Digital television, for one, remains a pipe dream. While there were discussions of migrating analog broadcasting to digital services, it would require a major collaboration among different players to make it a reality, including the government as a regulatory body and the private sector which will provide the investment, not to mention a huge partnership among the telecommunications companies, broadcasting stations and handset manufacturers.

In the meantime, we may learn a few lessons from an Asian neighbor, which, in May this year, launched the first satellite-based mobile television services for cellular phones.

The operator was TU Media Corp., a subsidiary of SK Telecoms, South Korea’s largest mobile operator.

In a press conference in Seoul last week, SK Telecoms officials said the Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) service was launched almost a year after the satellite was launched into orbit in Florida, USA in March 2004. The company expects to recover investments in two years.

TU Media’s DMB service currently has 60,000 subscribers nationwide. Company officials said the subscriber base has to grow to at least two million for the operations to break even.

But the 60,000-subscriber base is not bad for a pioneer service. SK Telecom said it projects six million users by 2010.

Currently, Korean cellphone users have to shell out $17 (about P1,000) to sign up for the service and pay a basic monthly fee of $12 (P675), which covers access to seven video channels and 20 audio channels.

For access to premium channels, a separate fee of $4 (P225) per month is required, or one can pay $1.15 (P65) per view.

The digital television broadcast can be accessed not just through mobile phones – although they remain the largest market – but also through stand-alone portables, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and built-in devices in cars (even traveling at a speed of up to 150 kilometers per hour).

There are currently six cellphone models that are capable of receiving mobile broadcasts, and at least 10,000 units more are expected to be sold before the year ends.

During the trial from January to April this year, SK Telecoms said 17,750 terminals were sold in the market or an average of 280 handsets per day.

South Korea’s foray into mobile television was an expected move. With an information and communications technology infrastructure that is among the most advanced in the world, the country is steadily moving toward a cyber-society that is only on the drawing boards of some Western nations.

And it has the means to participate in this evolving mobile wireless technology development, in particular mobile television.

SK Telecoms commercialized the world’s first CDMA cellular service in January 1996 and the CDMA20001X service in October 2000. It currently accounts for 52 percent of the domestic market, with 18.8 million mobile phone subscribers as of December 2004.

Sixty-five percent of South Koreans, or roughly 30 million of 50 million population, are Internet users. Emerging technologies such as wireless broadband, telematics, radio-frequency identification (RFID), WCDMA, terrestrial digital television and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) are the next logical step for the highly wired Koreans.

For SK Telecoms alone, wireless Internet revenue rose to 38 percent in 2004 and now comprises 20 percent of the company’s total cellular revenue.

On the global front, two of South Korea’s handset makers – Samsung Corp. and LG Electronics – were cited by research tracker International Data Corp. (IDC) last year as the No. 3 and 4 leading handset vendors in the world, respectively.

In a global handset market pegged at $106.6 billion, South Korea’s share is said to be 27.8 percent or about $30 billion.

An interplay of these factors makes South Korea a hotbed and a launching pad for mobile television.

But do people really need to watch TV on their cellphones? And how long can they stand watching a news program or a soap opera on a tiny screen?

Data gathered by SK Telecoms during its trial showed that subscribers watch a program for an average of 28 minutes. Average daily watching time is 114 minutes. Some 60 percent of handsets were purchased by those within the 20 to 30 age bracket and 70 percent of those who signed up for the free service during the trial were males.

It may be a long way before mobile TV usage truly gains mass appeal even in high-tech Korea, but the future of television is moving toward what Newsweek described it in its May 30 article, "Screens so small they fit inside coffee cups. Marriages arranged by TiVo. Production facilities on Mars. The king of late night peers into his plasma crystal ball."

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