The dedicated tower network to be built by Qualcomm's MediaFLO USA subsidiary should give US carriers a smooth road for rolling out mobile multimedia services, though it may be some time before they embrace the idea.
Qualcomm, the chip and technology supplier that pioneered CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) mobile phones and infrastructure, announced that it holds radio spectrum nationwide in the 700MHz range and plans to build a network of transmitters to send video and audio content to mobile phones.
Through MediaFLO, which is intended as a future spin-off company, Qualcomm will offer a service that includes aggregation of content from multiple sources, middleware for delivering that content to subscribers, and transmission over the dedicated network.
The content could include channels for streaming video as well as for downloadable video and audio. Qualcomm expects trials next year and commercial service in 2006.
US operators have lagged their counterparts in some other regions in mobile multimedia, but MediaFLO has the potential to accelerate the new services here, according to IDC analyst Scott Ellison.
It could shift the key issue for multimedia from what carriers need to do - namely, the painful process of "rebanding" their spectrum - to a task for handset makers, he said. They just need to develop phones that can receive transmissions from the newly tapped spectrum.
"I think it's a huge step forward in the US," Ellison said.
Asian manufacturers this year have demonstrated handsets that can receive terrestrial and satellite TV broadcasts.
In September a group of major handset supplier - Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Siemens and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications - formed the Mobile Broadcast Services initiative to collaborate on specifications to deliver broadcast services to wireless handsets.
No carrier customers were announced when Qualcomm's plans were detailed, but the concept has drawn some interest.
Verizon Wireless, which runs a CDMA network, wants to find out more about the technology and will discuss it with Qualcomm, spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said.
Sprint, also a CDMA operator, has been talking with Qualcomm about it but has not made any strategic decisions, according to spokeswoman Mary Nell Westbrook.
Qualcomm prepared for the service by buying licenses to the 700MHz spectrum in a US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction last year and in another transaction with a licence holder last month.
Because the network will operate at a lower frequency than mobile phone networks, each tower will have a longer range and fewer towers will be needed, said Jeremy James, senior director of marketing at Qualcomm.
Based on Qualcomm's FLO (Forward Link Only) technology, MediaFLO will be a send-only service. Subscribers to mobile operators that use the service will be able to control it via commands sent over the mobile phone network.
The need for MediaFLO-capable handsets could create an attractive market for Qualcomm, which is now developing a standalone FLO chip for phones and later plans to integrate the capability into the main chipsets for phones.
James was unable to comment on whether the company will license the technology to other chip makers, as it has with some other CDMA technologies.
Operators that use MediaFLO also will have to install some new modules in their infrastructure equipment to communicate with the network, he added.
IDC's Ellison, who has seen the technology demonstrated, said going from channel to channel on a MediaFLO-equipped handset was like flipping through TV stations, with no delay waiting for stored video clips to load.
The network can transmit video at 30 frames per second, the typical frame rate of broadcast TV, far beyond current US services such as Sprint PCS Vision Multimedia Services, which runs at 15 frames per second.
With that kind of quality, there is a big potential market for mobile video here, said Ellison, who dismisses the notion that Americans just are not interested in advanced mobile services.
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service