TV takes a call from cell phone users

Hot on the heels of the picture phone craze comes the latest innovation in next-generation cell phones — live TV.

Idetic Inc., a telecommunications company, has created a service that allows cell phone users to enjoy premium TV channels on their cell phones. With this service, users are able to view live TV without having to find prerecorded material.

Currently only available on Sprint’s PCS Vision service, MobiTV, as the service is called, features many of the most popular TV channels available on cable and broadcast. Among the offerings are MSNBC, the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and ToonWorld TV Classics.

Paul Scanlan, vice president of marketing for Idetic, said initially the service will only offer a limited range of programming.

“We didn’t want to clutter the service with a bunch of uninteresting channels,” Scanlan said. “Our motto is much like a cable service, in that we wanted to appeal to a broad demographic and then later on offer more niche programming.”

To utilize the service, cell phone owners start by downloading a small program from Sprint’s Web site. Then consumers will need to subscribe to the Sprint PCS Vision service, which costs an extra $15 per month on top of the standard cellular service.

In addition to enabling the unlimited use of MobiTV, PCS Vision also includes the availability of ringtones, picture receiving and sending, Internet browsing, video games and screen savers.

Scanlan said the limitations of viewing pre-recorded video on cell phones were behind the company’s decision to offer the new service.

“We felt the problem was a usability issue,” Scanlan said. “With traditional methods of watching video on a phone it would take too long to find the clip you wanted, and then it would only be 45 seconds in length.”

In developing the software, Scanlan said the company also took notice of the familiar shape of a phone.

“When we looked at the (cell) phone, we found the interface is almost identical to the interface for a TV controller,” Scanlan said. “Almost worldwide, most people know how to use a remote, so there is not a learning curve.”

Scanlan said this familiarity would help the product overcome the initial reluctance among mainstream consumers to embrace new technology as has occurred with the introduction of high definition TV.

Recent advances in cell phone technology, such as camera phones, have attained a steady user base among a variety of consumers. The rate of adoption is so high that these picture phones are in line to become accepted more quickly than DVD players, says researcher In-Stat/MDR.

While designing the service, Scanlan said the company tried to imagine the usage patterns for most users.

“One of the other factors that we wanted to take into consideration is the experience on your phone is not the same as the experience in your living room,” Scanlan said. “The occasion where you are going to use your phone and sit in front of your TV are not the same.”

Scanlan said this factor had a major impact on the types of programming that are being offered through MobiTV.

“The type of content that people are interested in is things they can snack on, so we didn’t put too much emphasis on having channels to watch long movies,” Scanlan said.

Although there are a number of channels available that satisfy most needs, Scanlan said the company is working with other networks to offer more programming. According to Scanlan, the company is also planning on offering optional packages, similar to premium cable programming.

Since its release in November, the product has received a warm welcome from the public, Scanlan said.

“So far we haven’t had anyone needing to be convinced to accept it,” Scanlan said. “Most people are intrigued and want to know more about it.”

A popular use for the product has been in keeping the public informed on the latest headlines, he said.

“With the recent news events, people were interested in all the news as it’s happening,” Scanlan said. “Once they heard a rumor about a possible story, they wanted to check it and were able to.”

With the advent of the Internet, the speed at which news is delivered to readers has been drastically improved. With this invention, consumers will also be able to see the news without having to remain in a stationary location.

Although the phone has received praise from most consumers, there is a recurring problem that has been voiced by others.

“The one complaint that we’ve heard the most is that people want to see the performance improve,” Scanlan said. “Now that we have launched, we want to work on improving the quality of the service.”

Scanlan said the company is already researching improvements that may bring the same experience of a home TV to the portable medium.

“Our goal by the end of the year is to improve the service to be like live TV as seen in a home,” Scanlan said.

According to Scanlan, Idetic is working with other cell phone providers to place the technology within reach of its customers.

Although the talks may be in progress, Mark Sigel, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless, said his company is waiting before it will openly accept the technology.

“These things sound wonderful when they are on paper, but we want to make sure they are something that our customers would be happy with,” Sigel said. “One of the things we have been very mindful of in our company is that the wireless industry has been guilty of over-hyping. Although video is available on wireless, there are certain things that need to be improved, such as the speeds of transmission, before we would consider applying it to our service.”

A list of MobiTV-compatible Sprint phones can be found at . Idetic also offers visitors the chance to fill out a form so the company can work on getting MobiTV compatibility for additional models.