Quick, the cellphone; I want to watch TV (DVB-H)



Remember the first Sony Watchman? Odds are that anyone over about 25 recalls the early buzz that surrounded the debut of portable televisions, which Sony touted in late 1983 as the successor to the Walkman personal stereo. Still, it wasn't long before even the most hardened TV addicts decided that the Watchman's tiny screen, its tinny sound and spotty reception failed to justify the $300 price.

Portable TVs have since improved markedly in quality and come down sharply in price, but you still don't often see them in use on the street, say, or on train platforms or at airports. So it may come as a surprise that a growing number of companies are ready bet on a new generation of hand-held TVs - disguised as mobile phones.

A handful of cellphone makers, including NEC, Nokia, Samsung and Toshiba, have started to introduce phones with builtin tuners that can receive broadcasts. Unlike some high-end phones that already enable users to download and play back streaming video via a mobile Internet connection, these TV phones pick up signals directly over the air.

Vodafone began offering phones equipped with analog TV tuners in Japan late last year. According to Akio Ogawa, senior manager of handset marketing at NEC, more than 500,000 of NEC's V601N TV phones have been shipped to Vodafone in the past four months. Vodafone, which charges customers ¥14,800, or about $136, for the phones, has not yet said how many of them have been sold, but Ogawa is enthusiastic about the market's potential.

"In Japan, many people use the train to commute to the office, so with this phone they can watch the news or other favorite programs while they travel," he said in an interview during the Cebit technology fair in Hannover, Germany, last month.

No doubt there are also a fair number of fans who would be delighted to watch their favorite sport on their phones - nevermind that a soccer ball would appear to be scarcely larger than a pinhead on most handsets. But are there enough potential users to spare the TV phone from the fate of the Watchman?

"We are probably still talking five years before you can start really counting the numbers" of TV phones in use, said Lars Vestergaard, a senior wireless industry analyst at International Data Corp. in London.

One big weakness in the phone-as-TV concept, analysts say, is that video uses up battery power. A traveler watching Real Madrid play Manchester United on his phone could easily run out of juice before the half. Without a spare battery, he would also be unable to call to check the score.

It remains to be seen how much revenue over-the-air TV could generate for mobile operators. So far, most operators that offer video have done so only as an over-the-network service, where the user pays for the airtime or for the amount of data transmitted. T-Mobile in Germany and Telecom Italia Mobile both offer some live streaming TV services, as do SK Telecom in South Korea and Sprint PCS in the United States.

According to Mike Walker, the London-based director of research and development at Vodafone, his company is not charging users in Japan anything for the time they spend watching TV on their phones.

But Vodafone is looking into technologies that would allow for a fee-for-service mobile TV business. The company, together with Nokia, Philips Electronics and Universal Studios, is poised to begin a six-month trial of mobile digital TV this spring. The test, in Berlin, will involve the use of around 50 new Nokia 7700 multimedia phones designed to receive transmissions in a format called digital video broadcast-hand-held, or DVB-H.

The use of digital, rather than analog, signals would allow for interactive services and provide a method for payment on demand for TV content, Walker said.

Digital transmission might also help solve the battery-life problem, since data can be sent in small packets to the phone, using less power. Claus Sattler, the manager of the Berlin project, said this could squeeze up to three hours of television reception from a single battery.