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WGBH steps into mobile TV market

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 16, 2010

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You could watch live shows from Boston public television station WGBH on your cellphone, if you had the right kind of cellphone. Right now, hardly anyone does, but that may soon change as consumer electronics companies start to adopt Mobile DTV, a new technology that could turn millions of digital gadgets into portable TV sets.

Mobile DTV isn’t streamed over the Internet or cellular data networks, like YouTube videos; shows are broadcast over the airwaves just like regular TV. But Mobile DTV devices don’t pick up the same broadcast signal used by standard living-room sets. They receive a signal that’s been tailored to be more stable on portable devices, so viewers get good reception on the move.

WGBH is one of less than 100 US television stations that now broadcast Mobile DTV shows. The station began the broadcasts in March, becoming one of the first to use the system. According to a survey from the Con sumer Electronics Association, WGBH and its sister station in Springfield, WGBY, are the only DTV broadcasters in Massachusetts.

“Boston’s an academic town, a commuting town,’’ said Joseph Igoe, the station’s chief technology officer. “It seemed like a good place for mobile TV to take hold.’’

Industry analysts say there’s a vast potential market for mobile TV devices. In 2009, the technology research firm In-Stat LLC estimated that 18 million people worldwide watched free mobile TV and predicted that by 2013, the number would rise to 314 million. For now, mobile TV is mostly popular in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.

The most recent effort to bring mobile TV to the American masses, Qualcomm Inc.’s Flo TV service, has flopped. Earlier this month, Qualcomm halted further sales of Flo TV devices, which let consumers view a variety of TV content from broadcast and cable television providers. Flo TV may have been hobbled by its cost — users had to pay a monthly fee of up to $15 a month, plus $250 for the viewer.

But Mobile DTV programs are supported by advertising and free to viewers, just like the ones on standard TV. In addition, Mobile DTV can deliver radio stations. WGBH transmits its news and classical music radio streams over the service.

Igoe could point to only one Mobile DTV viewer available to consumers, a $250 combination TV and DVD player from South Korean company LG Electronics that’s now available through Internet retailers, including Amazon.com. He also showed off a prototype device that picks up a Mobile DTV signal, then beams it via Wi-Fi to an Apple Inc. iPhone. Other companies plan to offer devices that plug into laptop computers, turning them into portable TVs.

But perhaps the most appealing portable TV device is the smartphone. TV-capable phones have sold by the millions in Asia, but still aren’t available here. South Korean electronics titan Samsung Group has developed a prototype cellphone with built-in Mobile DTV, but it’s not yet available to consumers.

For broadcasters, adding Mobile DTV capability costs about $150,000 for extra equipment. But until recently, there was no official technical standard for TV stations and electronics companies to build on. That problem was solved last October, said Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a broadcasting industry trade group. “Broadcasters are now building out their systems,’’ Schelle said, predicting a surge of new compatible devices. “I think you’re going to see some of the earlier products this Christmas season.’’

One more technical hurdle could hobble Mobile DTV: figuring out how to profit from it. Colleen Brown, chairwoman of the Mobile500 Alliance, a group of TV stations working to advance Mobile DTV, said that the industry hasn’t figured out how to track the viewing habits of mobile TV users. If station owners can prove to advertisers that mobile shows draw large audiences, they’ll turn Mobile DTV from an attractive technology to a profitable one.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.