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BT's Movio lurches into existence

With ZTE phone and terrestrial channels

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Comment Movio, the impending disaster that is British Telecom's approach to mobile TV, announced it has signed up ZTE to make 3G phones for the service. It also said its strategy would be largely built on showing existing UK TV channels – BBC One, ITV1, Channel 4 and E4, on the phone.

We have discovered in the past that this shortcut into mobile TV, using the existing DAB multiplexes around the UK that were built solely for digital audio radio, will deliver a TV channel in around 70 Kbps, as opposed to the 400 Kbps that is likely across the rest of Europe. That will make it look very average, if not downright unwatchable.

This choice was made so that the service could get a one year head start on other services which lack spectrum and which won't get any until the spring auction for the less than perfect 1.45 GHz spectrum that regulator Ofcom has found in its closet. It will then take six months to build a network and get a service off the ground, so BT thinks it has a year's head start.

But that's about all it has. It has had to go to ZTE for phones because none of the majors are interested in what is likely to be a tiny requirement, and couldn't even line up its partner Virgin to use the same phones. Virgin instead will use a Windows Media Mobile phone from HTC.

The new phone is supposed to offer the opportunity for other 3G operators to offer BT Movio, alongside their existing video-on-demand services. Do we hear the clamour of Vodafone, O2 and Orange, which all have advanced video strategies, beating down the door to take an inferior mobile TV service? We don't think so.

Also the choice of channel and the fact that those channels will simulcast is rather strange. The main usage patterns for mobile TV are to watch them in work breaks, while traveling to and from work, and at home while the TV is on, and again late at night.

Most UK channels have children's programming on them during the work breaks and travel time, and when watching at home they will see the same programmes that they are avoiding on TV by watching their phone. Even a six to eight hour delay would have meant that adults can watch last night's TV that they missed on their phones, which might promote viewing.

Of course, the channel owners are reluctant to offer a delay, scared of losing viewers and might want more money for a delayed service, but it would be worth it.

If Movio gets a decent number of customers (not assured by any means) it will be in an invidious position a year from now. It will be faced with putting in a high bid for the new spectrum to ensure it gets all or some of it, in order to avoid the comparison of a new service running in clear QVGA, at 30 frames a second, against its own impoverished, unwatchable, low resolution, screens.

If it doesn't get that spectrum it won't only have missed an opportunity, but wasted everything it spent on Movio as well.

BT Movio says it is the first wholesale mobile TV service in the world and that it combines live TV, DAB digital radio, a seven day program guide and "red button" interactivity for mobile phones.

Virgin Mobile, which has previously been announced as the first UK mobile operator to offer this service, has also released retail pricing, product specifications, advertising support and availability details.

Copyright © 2006, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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