Virgin has announced an October launch for its Lobster 700TV handset, which can receive video and radio over the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) network.
BT has been trying to generate interest in broadcasting video to mobile phones over DAB for a few years now, but the logistics of designing a compatible handset and negotiating for content have put off most network operators; until now.
DAB is a technology well-suited to integration into a phone: it was designed for low power consumption and for use on mobile devices, and while it does need an external antenna, the use of the headset wire makes the experience the same as using an FM radio on a normal handset.
The handset is manufactured by HTC, maker of many phones based on the Windows Mobile platform.
The move represents some risk for the company as it will be a UK-specific design for a while, depending on the success of the service. Video-over-DAB is used in Korea, with great success, but its standard differs in several respects.
When it comes to content, Virgin and BT have scored some important contracts: BBC1, ITV1 and E4 will be available, with Channel 4 pushing its specially made-for-mobile content, dubbed "Channel 4 Short Cuts".
The eventual availability of Channel 4 will no doubt depend on the success of Short Cuts. All channels are streamed (almost) simultaneously with their living-room counterparts.
Virgin has decided not to charge for the content, at least initially.
The handsets will cost £199, or free if you sign up for a contract of over £25 a month.
The BT Movio software, which manages the service, is more than capable of providing pay-per-view, subscription services, and such like, but for the moment all content is free. It would be hard to make subscribers pay for content they can get free at home (subscribers will still need to own a TV license, so not completely free), and the important thing at this stage is to generate some interest in the service and find out if people actually want to watch TV on their mobile.
It might seem obvious that TV viewing would be a popular service; with Sprint offering full-length movies in the US and both 3 and Orange in the UK providing a streaming video service over their cellular networks, but the business case for mobile video is far from proven.
Orange reckons its subscribers watch TV for an average of two minutes 42 seconds a day, while research from Texas Instruments suggests that viewers will watch for longer, but only in segments of between two and 10 minutes.
Broadcast TV may not be suited to such viewing, there might be nothing on, and recording TV onto the phone for later viewing would only be possible with the headset/antenna connected (though once the L Band frequencies become available next year that could change).
Some mobile phone users make great use of the FM radios included in handsets these days, and the experience is not dissimilar to that offered by the new service, but FM radios are often used when walking or jogging: not the ideal times to be watching TV.
Pocket TVs have been around for years, and sold in small numbers, so it would be easy to take those sales as an indicator of the potential of the new service.
But the Lobster 700TV is still a telephone, and a decent radio too, so it is possible that people will buy it for those functions, considering the TV service to be a nice addition.
Digital radios are very popular in the UK, and the Lobster will be able to receive all the normal DAB broadcasts with the clarity and ease-of-use common across DAB devices.
No-one knows if the users will actually watch TV on their phones, but as a free feature to accompany a DAB-radio-integrated-phone, there seems little reason not to find out. ®