7 October 2008

Mobile video goes mainstream

Mobile video is coming -- despite the sceptics, who see the idea of people wanting to watch TV on their handsets as an unlikely scenario. I'd number myself among those sceptics, as the situation is likely to be more nuanced than a simple either/or.

What's sparked this thought is the long-expected announcement this week of a deal between T-Mobile and 3 with BT, under which the two mobile operators will have their data traffic backhauled over the incumbent's shiny new 21st century network.

The agreement was actually cut between BT Wholesale and the mobile operators' joint-venture company, Mobile Broadband Network Ltd (MBNL), which was formed to allow the two operators to combine the infrastructure for the two networks. Instating MBNL allowed them to close around 5,000 base stations, according to one report.

That left MBNL with around 7,500 base stations, which are being increasingly inundated with demands for data, as ever more-capable handsets reach the hands of growing numbers of people. While many business users have been downloading the occasional web page along with their emails for years, the iPhone has been at the forefront of generating a hockey-stick curve in the data stats. That, and the jump in sales of 3G and HSDPA-enabled data dongles, have brought about a transformation of the data market, and which could become part of a financial rescue package for the mobile operators.

So that's all very well, but what kinds of data are people downloading -- and what does it mean for the networks? While there's a pile of applications too, along with web pages, email, IM and so on, the bulkiest items that people will download are likely to be videos.

The operative word here is download, rather than stream. Real-world data is thin on the ground but data streaming in a mobile environment is a tough technical challenge. Reports from real users on web forums and the like suggest that what appears to be streaming is in fact downloading: the video downloads and plays while it downloads, YouTube and NetEventsTV-style.

In practice, downloading a video this way is a much safer and more seamless way to view content than expecting it to appear instantly. Even with a broadband link, streaming a video from an online service doesn't always mean you can view it in real time -- it's often best to wait for a minute or two until enough of it is buffered. Over a less reliable cellular link, many if not most users are likely to select this option.

And a further issue that the mobile operators and content providers aren't going to like hearing is that downloading gives users the option to fast forward through the ads, reducing the providers' opportunity to monetise the offering. It's an choice most users are likely to make.

The other issue is how much video users are likely to watch on a phone. Short YouTube clips under ten minutes long -- often called 'snack video ' -- are the most likely candidates. Few are likely to want to watch a full-length feature film, or even an episode of their favourite sitcom on a phone-sized screen. Given both the form factor, the impact on battery life, and the fact that it could take days to download a feature film, this is hardly surprising.

So mobile video is not just coming -- it's here. But downloading is the most likely delivery mechanism, not streaming. And the operators' networks still need to be updated to take account of the anticipated increase in demand. So the deal between BT Wholesale and MBNL is not likely to be the last of its kind.

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