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Ten European music and mobile phone firms are banding together to get punters tuning into their own personal music stations using next generation mobile phones.

Dubbed MUSICAL (as in "MUltimedia Streaming of Interactive Content Across mobiLe networks), the project is backed by Brussels and includes mighty Nokia as a participant. Topping the agenda is a trial service which collates data on users' music tastes to deliver tracks, video-clips, new releases and reviews of their favourite music to GPRS and 3G handsets.

The service deployed during the project will provide strong personalisation features and benefits such as user notification of local gigs and festivals on the hoof, along with the delivery of discount vouchers for events straight to users' phones. People with similar music tastes will be able to create their own 'community' stations as well as sending songs, dedications and accompanying video clips to friends.

Network operators (including Vodafone's Greek arm), technology providers (including Nokia), research institutes and music providers are collaborating on the two-year project, within the framework of the European Commission eContent programme. Around 50 per cent of the €3 million to be invested in the project is expected to come from Brussels.

Partners include the Association of Independent Music (AIM), a trade body for UK independent record labels, contrasts MUSICAL with the "haphazard advances seen over the development of music services for the Internet".

This time around there's a focus on developing "security architectures and systems for protecting musicians' rights" from the beginning - so expect a strong emphasis on Digital Right Management technologies.

The MUSICAL consortium will conduct extensive quantitative and qualitative research among the general public (comprising questionnaires and structured interviews), to establish the type of service people want, and at what price. The two-year project is expected to culminate in a live trial across Europe.

This will be based on music fed from a centralised database directly to 2.5 and 3G mobile phones. Various technology issues need resolution - new streaming software has to deployed and an entirely new content distribution facility has to be designed.

Other challenges, including rights issues and service customisation and localisation and future business models, are to be studied during the project phase.

Given the current bandwidth limitations of current phones, we wonder how many people really want to listen to music on their mobile phone. Many killer 3G apps have been touted, but music over mobiles rarely ranks high up the list, we suggested to Gordon Rintoul, of AIM's new media arm, Musicindie, a key content provider for MUSICAL.

Rintoul, the leader of the project at the UK end, concedes that a business model for the delivery of mobile music services is yet to be developed, but then again this is a major area of investigation for MUSICAL. "It's up to consumers to determine the quality of the music they want and the price they're prepared to pay for it," he says.

Although the early focus of the project is to look at streaming media technology, Rintoul notes the technology is limited at present, even with the best compression the technology. So a download model has not been discounted, just yet.

Whatever the delivery mechanism, keeping content out of the hands of pirates will be a key objective. Rintoul said members of the project will be keeping a close eye on the development of Digital Rights Management technology. Nokia, a key partner in the project, already has mobile phones with MP3 players that enforce digital rights management for media files.

Rintoul says MUSICAL is looking at this mechanism, but he appears to favour an approach that put the control and management of content distribution on the server. This would give content providers more control, he suggested. "Napster was a game for hackers and pirates, its too early to say whether same would be true of mobiles," he says. ®

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