Listen Up, AT&T and Verizon: Five Ways to Fix Mobile TV

AT&T Mobile TVOver the weekend AT&T became the second U.S. carrier to roll out MediaFLO’s glorious mobile TV technology, which offers a pristine picture and near-instant channel changing times, a far cry from the blurry mess that is streamed over today’s 3G data networks. And AT&T is attempting to add value by offering exclusive channels Verizon Wireless doesn’t have, including CNN Mobile Live and PIX (movies from Sony Pictures Television). Plus AT&T has two pretty hot new (albeit expensive) handsets in its corner to help spread the word in the $299 LG Vu and $199Samsung Access. But according to an article in today’s New York Times, fewer than 100,000 people have signed up for Verizon Wireless’ V CAST Mobile TV service in the year it has been available, which uses the same MediaFLO technology, and the last time we checked the carrier hadn’t debuted a new V CAST Mobile TV phone in months. Can Verizon turn things around? Can AT&T avoid a similar fate? Not unless they follow my five-point plan. 1. Give it away…temporarily. At a time that all the major carriers are getting more aggressive in offering unlimited calling plans and either bundling or lowering data plans to stay competitive, an extra $15 per month to catch How I Met Your Mother on your lunch break is too steep. And the $13 limited basic package offered by both AT&T and Verizon Wireless is like a slap in the face. Why would you pay that to get just four channels when two more bucks will get you ten channels? I say charge $5 for the limited basic package or don’t offer it at all. Better yet, I’d pull an XM/Sirius and offer the service for free for the first three months to generate interest, then try to convert as many freeloaders as possible to paid customers. And even then I’d find a way to sweeten the deal. How about $99 per month for all-you-can-eat voice minutes, data, and Mobile TV? That would could be a compelling answer to Sprint’s Simply Everything plan. 2. Make it more interactive. The reason why YouTube and online video in general has exploded is because the viewer is in control. And time-shifting popular shows isn’t enough to get mobile couch potatoes excited. It’s still appointment viewing, and you can’t start watching what you want on demand because MediaFLO is a broadcast technology. So what could MediaFLO and its carrier partners do to at least lend the impression that this service is more interactive? How about allowing viewers to vote on what shows air when online or even giving subscribers the power to pick the shows that populate these channels to begin with? I would also strongly suggest attempting to better integrate the carriers’ data services and MediaFLO. For example, by working with a company like Cellfire AT&T or Verizon could allow you to download a coupon related to a particular commercial or product placement. Or the carriers could integrate text messaging into MediaFLO to encourage voting on polls or quizzes related to content, as well as on reality shows. Or AT&T Navigator or VZ Navigator could be used to deliver turn-by-turn directions to a destination mentioned on air. It’s time to break down the walls, people. 3. Make coverage more widespread. Last week I received a press release trumpeting the availability of MediaFLO in San Diego. That’s well over a year after the service debuted. The problem is that local broadcasters have to abandon TV channel UHF 55 in a given area (which is in the 700-MHz spectrum) in order for mobile TV to go live there. And that has been a painstaking process in some areas. Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer coverage in more than 50 major markets, but reception is spotty or non-existent once you hit the suburbs. Two people I know own an LG VX9400, one of the first V CAST Mobile TV phones, and neither of them can tune in where they live or work in central New Jersey. I can’t imagine if my 3G EV-DO card stopped working a half hour or so outside of Manhattan. I simply wouldn’t pay for it. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix here, but making coverage available over an entire metro area would go a long way toward justifying any sort of monthly fee. 4. Offer wider selection of Mobile TV-ready phones, especially smart phones. AT&T gets a pass here since the carrier is just rolling out its service now, but let’s take a quick look at Verizon’s Mobile TV-ready lineup. There are currently four handsets available, two that were offered at launch last March (the LG VX9400 and the Samsung SCH-u620), one that rolled out in September (MOTORIZR Z6tv), and one that hit in November (the LG Voyager). No V CAST Mobile TV phones have launced in 2008 so far, and here we are in May. That tells me that either the service is flopping or that Verizon is maybe about to launch some new devices that support its service; I’m guessing the latter. My suggestion: offer Mobile TV on at least some smart phones; a BlackBerry or BlackJack II customer who already pays more per month for data than a non-smart phone customer presumably has the extra income to spring for Mobile TV. 5. Promote it! I’m not a marketing expert, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV spot advertising the availability of Mobile TV. Granted, limited geographic availability of the service plays a role here, but that doesn’t stop Sonic from advertising its fruit smoothies in my neck of the woods–and the closest location is 30 miles away. If you want people to desire a service, or at least inquire about it when they’re purchasing a phone, it would help if they knew that it existed.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. Robert Says:

    I subscribed to Verizon MobileTV for 3 months and it quite simply isn’t ready for prime time. I really didn’t have a problem with channel selection, since there was usually something decent on when I wanted to watch. The problem was the coverage of the product. Verizon made a big point of touting its availability in Boulder, which is where I wanted to be able to view it. Over 80% of the time I couldn’t get a signal with my VX9400, even with the antenna extended.

    Ironically, the coverage map and reps both said the the service wasn’t available in my suburb, but it was teh one place that I was able to get consistent reception. I agree with you about the pricing. The difference between the $13-$15 plans was negligible, making the former something not to be taken seriously. I got the VCast coverage plan for an extra $10/mo., which came in handy when the TV reception didn’t come in (which was often). Unfortunately, the web access for news is available only through Verizon’s proprietary web site, which severly limits what you can view. (Plain old vanilla access is prohibtively expensive, especially with the VX9400 as a web browser).

    What can make it better? I agree with you that coverage needs to be better. The service is just too unreliable where I live (it was a little better in LA, but still not acceptable). I myself wouldn’t vote on content, your second point above wouldn’t do anything for me. I agree with giving the service away free as a trial, but also add the opportunity to return one’s handset during the same time period. THe only reason that I got the VX9400 was for MobileTV, but now that I’m not using the service, I’d rather have the VX8700 (which is about the same price). I’d also bundle different blocks of channels at different price points. I myself would subscribe to only ESPN, CNN, and Comedy Central if available at a small price point, assuming the coverage issue gets fixed.

    Maybe the reason that they aren’t promoting it is that it’s still in somewhat of a testing phase? I know that I was really excited to get the service, but was terribly disappointed by the quality. At this point I’m waiting for better technology to emerge that can deliver the service better, whether via Verizon or some other provider / method.

  2. Mike Brown Says:

    Why is Verizon Wireless now (June 9, 2009) down to offering only ONE handset, which is two years old(Voyager), on which Mobile TV may be viewed? The slow decrease in Mobile TV handsets over time makes me wonder if Verizon plans or will eventually be forced to discontinue Mobile TV service.

    Another issue that I wonder about is why Verizon Wireless stubbornly refuses to join the 21st century and allow customers to also utilize WiFi service over their VZW handsets. Has it ever occurred to corporate executives that many customers are be willing to pay for VCAST service via subscription yet at the same time wish to have WiFi for speed of connection when possible at WiFi spots or in their home or office environment?

    Time to move into the presesnt day, Verizon Wireless!

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