China enters mobile-TV fray

Updated: 2006-10-26 14:28

HONG KONG -- As telecom companies and broadcasters around the globe rush to offer television services over mobile phones, China is taking steps to ensure that its domestic players don't miss out on the potentially massive market.

Chinese broadcast authorities this week announced they will launch their own technology standard for mobile TV. The Chinese standard is still in early stages of development.

Regulators didn't suggest the domestic standard would be the only one allowed in China. But the existence of a Chinese standard could ratchet up competition between companies in the scramble to develop a dominant global standard for mobile TV. Nokia Corp. of Finland and Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea, for example, have already invested heavily in deploying mobile-TV services in other parts of the world.

"The Chinese government wants to spin off as much homegrown technology as possible," says Claus Mortensen, research manager for market tracker IDC in Hong Kong.

China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television didn't respond to a request for an interview.

China has tried this homegrown approach to technology standards before. It has been working for several years to develop its own standard for so-called third-generation wireless networks -- the high-speed networks used to deliver games, video clips and other data services to cellphones. But with alternative 3G approaches advancing more quickly in other countries, the Chinese standard -- not yet launched commercially -- isn't the only one being developed in China.

Cellphone service providers and broadcasters world-wide are trying to settle on the technology and business models behind providing video content on cellphones. China is the world's largest cellphone market, and analysts think its consumers may be particularly receptive to mobile-TV services, since few have existing pay-TV subscriptions, and because cellphone services beyond voice are extremely popular in China.

One option for delivering video to cellphones is to stream or download video clips over advanced 2.5G and 3G networks. In China, the influential Shanghai Media Group has begun trials providing its content to cellphones with this technology.

Another option is to broadcast video with a technology that works the way digital radio does. South Korea was the first country to roll out such a service, in 2005, using satellite and terrestrial versions of a Samsung Electronics-backed system called Digital Media Broadcasting. As of March, more than 500,000 handsets outfitted for the service had been sold.

Qualcomm Inc. has launched a proprietary mobile-TV service called MediaFLO in the U.S. In Europe and Asia, an industry group that includes Nokia has been touting a standard called DVB-H. More than 50 million DVB-H phones are expected to be sold globally by 2010, according to estimates from Research firm Informa.

The planned Chinese standard, which bears the ungainly name GY/T220.1-2006, could help local telecom providers, such as China Mobile Ltd. and China Netcom Ltd., by reducing the amount of money they have to pay in royalty and intellectual-property fees to foreign companies, according to Sandy Shen, a telecom analyst with Gartner in Shanghai.

But both Nokia and Motorola Inc. of the U.S. said that the announcement would have little impact on their plans to expand mobile-TV services in China and the rest of the world.

"It is very natural that China is looking after its own interests in this area," says Juha Lipiainen, Nokia's Greater China director of mobile-TV business development.

Motorola called the move "just another proof point that no single transmission standard will dominate the landscape for mobile TV."