Four British mobile telecoms operators are to work together to test mobile television on radio frequencies they bought six years ago, but which sit idle due to the slow take-up of wireless Internet.
Orange, Vodafone, Telefonica and 3 will broadcast television to mobile phones in the Bristol area using idle 3G radio spectrum, which was part of an auction that cost carriers £22.5 billion.
In the trial, several hundred mobile phone users will be able to receive a range of channels, compiled by MobiTV, at travelling speeds of more than 200 kilometres per hour.
So-called TDtv is the third mobile television technology to be tried on British soil. The main advantage of this technology is that, unlike other technologies, operators will not have to buy new radio spectrum if mobile TV becomes a hit.
"We don't have to buy new spectrum. We can offer up to 50 mobile TV channels using our 3G spectrum. That's a big plus," said a spokeswoman for Orange whose spectrum will be used in the joint trial, expected to start in January.
The radio spectrum was auctioned off to operators as an overflow space for third generation (3G) mobile Internet services, but demand for these 3G Internet services has not taken off as envisioned in 2000 when the licences were awarded.
Now, operators have to place their next bets on the future and in particular on mobile television. Consumers have told pollsters they will pay up to ten euros a month to get mobile broadcasts anywhere on their phone, but operators are wary.
"Operators told us that consumers will not pay more than 10 euros a month, and probably less. This technology will break even if 35 per cent of subscribers take mobile TV for 5 euros per month," said Jon Hambidge, vice president m arketing at US-based IPWireless, which provides the TDtv technology.
It claims that operators need almost twice as many subscribers to break even with competing mobile TV technology DVB-H, which is being trialled in the Oxford area by Telefonica unit O2.
IPWireless's cost comparison includes the cost of radio spectrum. This benefits TDtv because carriers have largely written off payments for 3G frequencies and regard it a "sunk cost". The 3G frequencies, in other words, are seen as free.
With TDtv, operators can offer 17 high quality TV sports and film channels or up to 50 lower quality TV news channels. They can also mix the TV offerings with digital radio channels.
The channels are the same across Europe and the technology is part of the 3G standard, which allows operators to use most of their current 3G network to broadcast the signal. Mobile phone vendors can develop TV phones quickly and cheaply.
"If operators are happy, the next step is to getting the mobile chipset integrated into the handset and by the second half of 2008 it can be integrated into the WCDMA (3G) chip," Mr Hambidge said.
Vodafone said DVB-H and MBMS, which is the technology behind TDtv, are the two main candidates for mobile TV services.
Vodafone holds less hope for the third technology known as Digital Multimedia Broadcast (DMB), offered in Britain by BT Group and Virgin Mobile and pushed by vendors in South Korea which helped it develop.
"Currently the most interesting technologies are the variants of MBMS and DVBH," Prof Michael Walker, Vodafone's director of research and development said in a statement.
British telecom regulator Ofcom has said radio spectrum for DVB-H mobile television will only be auctioned off nationwide in 2012, after the analogue TV signal is switched off.
An interim solution using the so-called L-Band which becomes available in 2007 has been dismissed by carriers.