Free to air terrestrial broadcasting is the key to driving mass market adoption of TV services on mobile devices, according to Chinese handset vendor ZTE.

On Tuesday, the Chinese firm announced that it will be packing free to air mobile TV capabilities into a number of its handsets under an exclusive global deal with chipset manufacturer Telegent.

Speaking to, Weijie Yun, president and chief executive officer of Telegent, said that while vendors and carriers hadn’t exactly been backing the wrong horse with their focus on next generation mobile TV services, they were missing a great opportunity by largely ignoring free to air terrestrial broadcasting.

“The big problem is that no one believed that terrestrial TV could be made to work on the mobile, but I beg to differ,” he said. “Using the right chipset and antennae, it works fine and the key benefit [with analogue terrestrial TV at least] is that it requires no additional infrastructure.”

To date, mobile TV has struggled to win a foothold in the mobile market. Operators have experimented with a number of technologies, with limited degrees of success. While DVB-H has won support in Europe, through its backing by the EC rather than overwhelming operator support, other technologies like DAB-IP, have crashed and burned.

Now, with the global credit crunch and soaring power prices, investment in new technologies and mobile TV infrastructure looks even less likely, argues Dermot Nolan, director of the TBS consultancy.

Nolan notes that South Korea and Japan, have shown that the free to air terrestrial TV model can be a winner on mobile. By February 2008, South Korea’s six-channel free terrestrial T-DMB had around 10 million customers and the 19-channel TU Media pay-satellite service had only 1.3 million customers. In Japan, a quarter of handsets have mobile TV and recent figures from broadcaster NHK indicated that about 20 million handsets were in use. The latest handsets include diversity reception, further improving the mobile-TV service that is available to 80 per cent of the Japanese population.

Although operators cannot directly monetise free to air programming, Yun believes it makes sense as a value add, to drive adoption. “By offering some of the most popular content available, such as news and sports, for free, operators can improve their competitive position.” Yun said terrestrial programming could also be used as a wrapper to push operators interactive services delivered over other platforms.

But one of the main cultural obstacles in the way of terrestrial mobile TV remains in the technology itself. The platform still requires that handsets are fitted with a telescopic antenna, a feature which is pretty much unseen outside of Asia. But Yun said that an embedded antenna model is in development, which may help swing the scales in favour of the platform.

To date, ZTE, which has a healthy presence in its domestic market and a smaller global outlet through agreements with the likes of Vodafone, is Telegent’s big fish. However, Yun said that the company is in discussion with the big five handset vendors, and it looks like a deal with one of more of these could be key to making free to air terrestrial an unlikely mobile TV victor.