March Madness on Mobile TV

3/19/09

March Madness is in the air, and beginning today Qualcomm’s MediaFLO plans to broadcast all 63 games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to AT&T—but AT&T customers must have a mobile TV-enabled cell phone to watch the games.

This is the first time AT&T has carried every game from the college basketball tournament for its wireless customers. The carrier, which launched its mobile TV service through Qualcomm’s FLO TV last spring, made a deal with CBS Sports to broadcast all 63 games games live.

Verizon Wireless broadcast some games last year, including real-time scoring updates and stats, and video highlights. This year Verizon Wireless is carrying a single March Madness channel during the tournament, also through Qualcomm’s MediaFLO. AT&T has four channels, which enables its customers to watch every game at any given time. The cellular carrier also provides highlights and clips. But only a handful of cell phones are equipped with the technology needed to watch the mobile TV broadcasts, including Verizon’s Voyager and AT&T’s LG Vu and Samsung Eternity.

Both AT&T and Verizon charge their subscribers an additional $15 per month for mobile television service. But AT&T, the biggest wireless operator in the U.S., is currently offering a two-month free trial for its mobile TV service and a discount on its LG Vu.

Qualcomm, AT&T and Verizon were undoubtably counting on a bigger audience for their March Madness broadcasts. But the Obama Administration’s decision to postpone TV stations’ transition from analog to digital TV broadcast technology precluded Qualcomm from using Channel 55 in many U.S. markets. The transition set for Feb. 17 has been delayed until June 12.

Mobile TV has had a rocky start outside U.S., where a European Union endorsed technology called DVB-H is widely in use. Mobile TV has succeeded primarily in Japan and South Korea, whereas Europe has been lukewarm to it, despite big investments.