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Analysts unimpressed with Virgin’s Mobile TV

Analysts and observers have criticised the launch of Virgin’s mobile TV service, both for the quality of the offering and its lack of channels.

The mobile virtual network operator announced its broadcast mobile TV offering at an event in London on Thursday but already questions are being asked about its quality and the effect that this might have on take-up in the future.

Virgin, which recently became part of cable giant NTL, will launch the new service on October 1. It will use British Telecom’s Movio technology, based on the nationwide Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) network, to deliver mobile digital TV and radio services. Emma Lloyd, managing director of BT Movio said 85 per cent of the UK population will be able to sign up for the service.

The firm said four channels will be available at launch, BBC1, ITV1, Channel 4 and E4. Users will be given an HTC Lobster 700 device (see picture) when they sign up on a contract worth £25 or more. Prepay users will have to shell out £199 for the phone including three months of free service, thereafter the service will cost £5 per month.

Earlier this year, BT claimed encouraging results from its pilot for mobile TV. The telco said 73 per cent of its customers would pay up to £8 per month for the service if it was available on their current network, while 38 per cent would be prepared to switch networks to receive the service.

For Daren Siddal, principal analyst at Gartner, the new service was “disappointing”. He explained: “I was disappointed there wasn’t a news offering included as our research shows news and sport are extremely popular.” But it isn’t just the content Siddal feels Virgin could have done more with. “On the whole I think it unwise that Virgin has brought this to market today. It felt rushed… It’s as if the priority is to just get the technology out there first.” Which could be a problem for other industry players who are waiting for the technology to mature before launching to market. Siddal agrees there could be an impact on late arrivals if consumers are put off by earlier, low-quality services.

Michelle Mackenzie, principle analyst at industry analyst Ovum agrees but was less scathing of the quality of the pictures on the lobster phone. “I didn’t think the pictures were too bad but I wonder if they would be acceptable if they were, for example, to show a sporting event,” she said. “You would need higher quality, I’m sure.”

Opinion differs greatly on how well mobile video will do in the consumer space. In Singapore, where mobile video has been adopted by less than 20 per cent of 3G subscribers, “it’s moving very slowly”, according to Neil Montefiore of M1, which provides video telephony. “As far as telephony is concerned, users are not comfortable with the experience… It’s not a natural thing… I think the same can be said of mobile TV,” he said.

Montiefiore added: “Mobile TV is still very much an early adopter technology with users watching short clips of news and sport but for no more than about two minutes at a time.”

Telecoms.com is less than enthusiastic about the service. At the London press conference we had the opportunity to play with a Lobster device and experience the technology. In terms of picture and audio quality the service is comparable to the 3G streaming offerings currently available from other operators as well as Virgin, complete with jerky pictures and audio.

The most unfriendly element of the experience is that you have to keep the headphones plugged in, as they act as the antenna. This only made us think of the portable TVs that were popular in the 80’s – the ones with the retractable aerial that you had to wave around to get a decent reception.

As Mackenzie put it: “This is still experimental and you might say Virgin should have waited but I think with the youth market they are aiming at they can afford to experiment to see what works.”

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