WRAL Goes Cellular

This week, WRAL Raleigh, N.C., became the first TV station to offer viewers a cellphone-based news-and-information service. (Major broadcast and cable networks, such as ESPN and ABC, have already rolled out similar offerings.) The WRAL service, which is updated every three minutes, is gambling that added visibility will enhance brand loyalty and deliver bigger revenues.

“[After TV and PCs], this 'third-screen' approach is logical,” says Sam Matheny, vice president and general manager of DTV Plus, the subsidiary of WRAL parent company Capitol Broadcasting responsible for its Internet, datacasting and cellular services. “We're taking the power of the WRAL newsroom and offering it to viewers in a new and valuable way.”

Phone to Web

Matheny says he doesn't know how many subscribers will sign up for the $3.99 monthly service, but the station is working closely with Sprint to promote it at local Sprint stores. The service is also pitched on WRAL's Web site and on the air.

While the cellphone service won't provide video or audio content, it does give users the full text of stories published at WRAL's Web site, as well as access to still photos from traffic cameras and Doppler weather radar. The system is based on Sprint's Vision data network and will be available on eight types of cellphones.

Subscribers who have one of the appropriate phone models can visit WRAL's Web site and enter their cell number. A call is then placed to the phone, and the application is downloaded. Users then set their preferences to one of the 19 stations that WRAL uses to keep track of weather conditions.

“We designed the application so that it can be ported to other TV stations,” says Matheny. Helping other stations provide a similar service is a second business opportunity for WRAL.

DTV Plus has already established a carrier relationship, developed the software application and ensured it can work on various handsets. Matheny believes that makes the application attractive to other stations. DTV Plus will license it to them, thereby establishing a revenue-sharing relationship.

Costs Will Vary

While he says DTV Plus invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the project, he can't estimate how much it will cost other stations. Those costs depend on how much integration work needs to be done with an individual station's newsroom, as well as the price of upgrading existing IT infrastructure, he says.

Stations already feeding a Web site with local-news content are natural fits for the service. “They need to create another feed off the Web site that goes to the phone,” says Matheny. “Things like Doppler radar maps will need to be uniquely outfitted for the phone.”

The new cellphone application is the result of six months of work by Sprint and DTV Plus. Sprint's PCS Vision network has a faster data speed than many other data networks. Any media company interested in providing a well functioning cellular-delivered service, says Sprint rep Tom Matthews, needs an application similar to the one WRAL is offering.

“Often, when a cellphone user tries to open a Web link, there may be too much information formatted, which can ultimately overwhelm the phone,” he says. “The WRAL application makes that information more usable because it employs Java-enabled handsets.”

Today, the WRAL service is simply text and photos, but Matheny says other features, like local sports coverage, could be added. A video component is still in the future; Matthews says that, when it is made available, the Vision network will accommodate it. For now, the extra bells and whistles aren't a priority.

“We think this service is much more appropriate and beneficial to consumers as is,” he says.

“People think nothing of downloading a game or ring tone for $2,” Matheny adds. “So we're optimistic a news-and-information service with real-world usefulness is viable for consumers.”

His optimism is based on the current data rates on the Sprint Vision network, which can reach 144 kbps download and upload. That is fast enough to send video at 15-20 frames per second.

And next year, says Matthews, the company will introduce a next-generation service based on EVDO (Evolution Data Only) technology. That new service will be able to deliver speeds up to a whopping 2.4 Mbps. Although network traffic will probably limit speeds to 500 kbps-1Mbps, the higher rate is still enough to transform cellphones into small-screen versions of their TV-set cousins.