ORLANDO, Fla. – Try shopping for a "Watchman" on Sony's Web site, and all you'll find is music.
Yet it was earlier this decade, right about the same time that Sony Corp. (SNE) was halting Watchman production, that the cellular industry grew bent on bringing live television to cell phones, unimpressed by the market's apparent rejection of watching TV on a 2- or 3-inch screen.
Well, cell TV is here now. And since it's not free like traditional broadcast television, the wireless industry will find out soon enough whether people want their squint TV.
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In early March, Verizon Wireless introduced an eight-channel service that broadcasts programming, much of it identical to that being shown on regular TV, including shows from CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, Fox and NBC.
The service, delivered over an $800 million network being built by Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and slated to expand to 20 channels, will also be offered later this year by AT&T Inc.'s (T) Cingular Wireless under a recent deal.
Undeterred by the loss of these two major wireless providers, a rival venture started by cell tower operator Crown Castle International Corp. (CCI) is forging ahead with a trial network across the New York City area. The venture, Modeo, says it remains confident it will launch the service in 30 major markets at a cost of up to $500 million.
A fool's odyssey in an industry hungry for new growth? Perhaps not.
"I don't know if people will want to watch it, but every time I say one of these `I don't know's,' it goes beyond my wildest imagination," said Randall Stephenson, AT&T's chief operating officer.
He pointed to the explosive growth of text messaging despite the lack of a full keyboard on cell phones, as well as the surprising demand for ringtones, an $800 million a year revenue stream for AT&T.
Outside the United States, 400,000 people in Italy are using a cell TV service launched less than a year ago by the mobile carrier 3, a unit of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (HUWHY) Those customers, representing nearly 6 percent of the carrier's 7 million users, are paying as much as 29.99 euros ($40) extra per month to get TV on the go.
In Korea, several million have signed up for mobile TV services from TU Media Corp. and others since 2005.
Such a swift customer embrace would likely thrill Verizon, which is charging $15 to $25 a month for V Cast Mobile TV.
The company, its revenue per subscriber stuck in the $50 range, won't say how many customers have signed up for TV since the launch in roughly 20 markets, but there are some encouraging signs.
Three weeks after getting himself the $200 Samsung handset for the V Cast service, Charles Durham returned to the Verizon kiosk at a BJ's Wholesale Club in Jacksonville, Fla., to buy a second for his 13-year-old son.
"He's an overachiever as it is at school, a straight-A student. He knows his responsibilities in his short life," said Durham, 45, the owner of a company that makes sanitizing compounds.
Durham says he bought the phone so he could watch Fox News when he's waiting on an appointment or eating lunch, but has been checking ESPN for updates on the NCAA basketball tournament and the University of Florida Gators.
"The quality is clear as a bell on the basketball," he said.
Durham's example is especially noteworthy because until now, he's made little use of the premium services on his Verizon phone, such as mobile Web access or downloading video clips, music or games.
That means the extra money he's paying for mobile TV won't come at the expense of Verizon's other gravy-generating services.
Yet while gadget lovers may flock to mobile TV, some players dispute the need for a separate, dedicated wireless network with its own frequency like Qualcomm's MediaFlo and Modeo.
A leading rationale behind those services, which require handsets that can pick up both a cellular and a broadcast signal, is to avoid clogging cell networks with high-bandwidth video.
By contrast, Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) is sticking for now with the pioneering combination of live and recorded television it has been delivering over its cellular network since late 2003.
That service is powered by MobiTV Inc., whose live simulcast of cable TV channels has improved markedly over the years, but still remains more akin to live radio played against a jittery slideshow rather than normal full-motion video.
Despite those quality issues, which MobiTV says will dissipate as handsets improve, more than 1 million cell phone users worldwide are now paying for the service through Sprint and about 30 other wireless carriers.
"The only people trying to point out a strain on the cellular network are the people not operating a cellular network themselves," said Phillip Alvelda, chief executive of MobiTV.
He argues that network congestion will only become a problem when there are millions of mobile TV users, by which time a new generation of robust wireless technologies may give cellular networks ample capacity.
Alvelda also contends that the mobile broadcast networks, limited to about 20 channels, run counter to the prevailing business trend exemplified by the YouTube video craze, where users can choose from a vast array of content.
Where a broadcast service uses most of its bandwidth to send the same 20 channels to all subscribers, leaving little room for video on demand, a cellular TV service sends an individual wireless data stream to each phone with the program chosen by the user.
The companies also are looking at opportunities beyond just cell phones.
MediaFlo, which Qualcomm plans to spin off as an independent company, sees the cellular market as the best way to get to the majority of the population very quickly.
Michael Ramke, president of the Modeo venture, also sees its service on both cell phones and other devices. Market research, he said, indicates that about half of consumers do indeed want a phone that does everything.
But, he stresses, "The other half want their phones to be very simple and cheap and just work as a phone. They would just like to have a high-end media device that doesn't make the same compromises as a converged device trying to do all things."
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