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Qualcomm halts the FLO of TV

Mobile TV again fails to ignite world

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Qualcomm is reportedly pulling the plug on its US MediaFLO service, after discovering that even Americans won't pay to watch broadcast TV on mobile phones.

The service will go offline before the end of the year according to PaidContent, and Qualcomm is in discussions with AT&T and Verizon - who run branded versions of the service - about how best to break it to the remaining users that they'll no longer be able to watch broadcast TV on the move.

They'll still be about to watch video of course: YouTube already accounts for 13 per cent of mobile bandwidth consumed, but broadcast TV - requiring everyone to watch the same thing at the same time - just isn't suited to mobile video consumption, as Qualcomm has now discovered.

Not that Qualcomm is the first company to try, and fail, to push broadcast TV onto mobile users. It just had the deepest pockets. Many people in the industry felt that TV reception was a logical extension of mobile-phone functionality, and EU Commissioner Viviane Reding campaigned hard for a cross-EU standard and allocated radio frequencies, despite the fact that no one appeared very interested in such a service.

To be fair, no one ever asked for a camera or text messaging in a telephone, so the industry felt it was doing the right thing by forging ahead in the belief that once the network was built, customers would jump at the chance to watch EastEnders when the schedule said they should.

But building such a network would cost hundreds of millions of pounds, so EU operators have wisely confined themselves to trials, with the notable exception of Virgin, which was convinced by BT to back a service piggybacked onto the DAB network. Technically that worked fine, but users still didn't want to watch broadcast TV on the move, no matter how heavily it was promoted.

Qualcomm is blaming the lack of MediaFlo handsets, though previously it conceded that users were more interested in bite-sized video than episodic drama - earlier this year the company said its service would move towards a caching model, providing video on demand from locally-cached content. But once you do that, the advantage over 3G data becomes minimal, while the cost of running an entirely separate network remains considerable.

That cost doesn't just extend to base stations and content, it also includes radio spectrum licences. Two years ago, Qualcomm splurged more than £8m on UK spectrum ideally suited to MediaFlo, spectrum that still lies empty as the company has never managed to find a partner with whom to launch a UK version of Flo TV. A while back we asked Qualcomm what it was doing with the spectrum and were told that their engineers were having a wonderful time playing with it, which must be nice if you work at Qualcomm, though we'd be less impressed if we had shares in the company.

Qualcomm's CEO has previously pointed out that even if MediaFlo goes titsup, its US spectrum holdings are worth somewhere in the region of $2bn - far more than Qualcomm paid for them, which is good news now the tits are distinctly skyward-pointing, but bad news for all the other money Qualcomm poured into mobile TV. ®

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