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MediaFLO to Get DTV Push

Minutes after hundreds of analog TV broadcasts across the U.S. flicker off the air next February, Qualcomm's MediaFLO USA will be ready to start pumping mobile-television feeds over the vacated spectrum.

MediaFLO is hoping to dramatically increase its coverage next year — adding more than 40 cities to its footprint — after the Feb. 17 switchover to all-digital broadcasts by full-power TV stations. Today, it provides live, mobile multichannel services through AT&T and Verizon Wireless in 58 markets.

Two to three months after the DTV transition, MediaFLO should have commercial service up and running in Boston, Houston, San Francisco and Miami, which are the four markets out of the top 20 where the service is currently unavailable, according to Matt Milne, senior vice president of strategy.

MediaFLO also will expand coverage in several other markets, such as Los Angeles, where service is presently available to only about half the metropolitan area.

That should address one of the big gating factors for MediaFLO, said Current Analysis research director Bill Ho: “You can't go full bore on nationwide marketing until you get that coverage.”

Overall, MediaFLO expects to expand mobile-TV coverage from 63 metro areas serving 140 million people at the end of 2008, to more than 100 markets serving 200 million by the end of next year.

MediaFLO hasn't disclosed how many subscribers the service has through AT&T and Verizon, but Milne said the figure is “well north” of 100,000. Both carriers sell the live TV service, with about a dozen channels, starting at $15 per month.

The service offers full-length simulcast as well as mobile-programmed linear channels, including CBS Mobile, ESPN Mobile TV, Fox Mobile, Fox News, NBC 2Go, CNBC, MSNBC, Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon.

To date, Milne said, subscribers have watched a daily average of 20 minutes of mobile TV over four to five sessions. “What we've kind of seen that works well for snackable content is live viewing,” he said.

Particularly popular on mobile TV, he noted, are sports and breaking news, such as coverage of this fall's presidential election. “We're about immediacy,” Milne said.

MediaFLO also has been offering one or two temporary channels, as a way to build buzz and deliver bonus programming to subscribers. It recently added a feed of Food Network, which will continue through the holiday seasons, and carried Fox's Fuel TV this fall.

With CBS, the company recently launched Victoria's Secret TV, a dedicated 24-hour channel that provides an “all-access pass” to the underwear retailer's 2008 fashion show. On Dec. 3, MediaFLO will simulcast the 2008 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, airing on CBS at 10 p.m. ET and PT, live from the Fontainbleau Miami Beach Resort.

MediaFLO has room to grow the lineup. The service has capacity for up to 22 channels, Milne said, and it's at about 15 including temporary channels. The service has the capability to offer premium channels, he added: “We're looking at the way to price and package that.”

Qualcomm already has spent hundreds of millions building out MediaFLO, which broadcasts over a dedicated 6-MHz spectrum slice in the 700-MHz band.

In March, the company acquired five E-block licenses in the Federal Communications Commission's 700-MHz spectrum auction for $554.6 million covering the Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco regions — doubling the potential capacity of the MediaFLO service along East and West Coast corridors.

Will the company recoup that investment? The jury's still out, said Current Analysis's Ho.

“The price points for the service aren't great for what you get, and it's questionable in cloudy economic times about whether people will pay extra for TV on cellphones,” he said.

Meanwhile, broadcasters are pushing forward on a plan to deliver free-to-air mobile TV. The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a group of more than 800 local stations, is testing an Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) mobile-television standard with the goal of having compatible handsets in the market for the 2009 holiday shopping season.

That theoretically could help MediaFLO, Ho said. If consumers get accustomed to watching TV on their mobile phones, they might be more willing to pay to get more channels — as with cable TV.

“There's some logic to it,” Ho said. “But how that plays out, it's anybody's guess.”