Flo TV to Launch Sports Datacasting This Month, as Parent Qualcomm Studies Datacasting for Magazines and Other Opportunities
Some of Qualcomm’s top executives have been suggesting the San Diego wireless technology giant is looking at alternative uses of the 700 MHz spectrum that Qualcomm’s Flo TV has been using since 2007 to broadcast television programming to mobile devices. As we reported last month, Qualcomm Chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs said the number of Flo TV subscribers have not been nearly what the company expected.
At last week’s Uplinq conference, Qualcomm’s Jacobs and Flo TV President Bill Stone lifted the veil a little higher. Stone told me Flo TV will begin some sports datacasting on Flo TV this month, while Jacobs outlined how Qualcomm has been studying other ways of using Flo TV’s broadcast spectrum to offload data traffic and ease congestion on cellular networks.
Among other things, Flo TV plans to offer consumers more control over their mobile television broadcast schedule by launching “on-demand” TV programming and other time-shifting services, Stone told me last week. The Flo TV president said Qualcomm also should learn within the next two weeks if it’s getting the license needed to operate its mobile TV service in Japan (with Japanese partner KDDI), and Flo TV eventually plans to launch its mobile TV service in Taiwan, Malaysia, Latin America, and other international markets. Jacobs separately told reporters at a news conference, “We’re getting a lot of traction outside the U.S. for Flo TV.”
Qualcomm is particularly focused on improving Flo TV’s “service and value proposition,” Stone said, by encouraging operators to reduce subscriber costs and by using datacasting to add value to its broadcast services—especially during live coverage of sporting events. By the end of this month, Stone says Flo TV plans to datacast sports stats and “behind-the-game” video interviews with athletes that subscribers can click to access while watching sports coverage.
“We can literally put out gigabytes of data per day,” Stone told me. “There’s a lot of capability.”
Flo TV also sees datacasting opportunities for print media.
As an example, Jacobs said during his Uplinq talk: “Gizmodo recently reported that the iPad version of Wired magazine was about 500 megabytes. So if you think about the cost of supporting those kinds of data transfers on the cellular network, it’s probably similar to buying an old-fashioned printed version of the magazine or book, and mailing it through the postal service. If we use the broadcast network technology like our Flo TV network, we can get that magazine onto your mobile device in a much more cost-effective manner.”
(Jacobs used this example to introduce Qualcomm’s Flo TV developer challenge, which offers a $20,000 first prize for the mobile app that provides the best use in leveraging Flo TV as a multicast network. The deadline for contest submissions is July 30.)
This could be important, because newspapers and magazines are hoping against hope that Apple’s iPad will be the publishing industry’s salvation by enabling them to generate advertising and subscription revenue at levels approaching the old media business model. But as Gizmodo’s John Herrman notes, buying Wired magazine at $5 each month from the Apple App Store would cost $60 for a year—six times a conventional one-year subscription. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan also observes that the Popular Mechanics’ app developed by Heart programmers in Objective-C weighs in at a mere 60 MB—while Wired’s app, done by Condé Nast with Adobe, is over 500 MB (and tips the balance toward Steve Jobs’ anti-Adobe tirade.)
At a press conference later that day, Jacobs later took a lot of questions about Flo TV. He said the data rate of Flo TV’s digital broadcast is about 6 megabytes per second, and the content of most magazines is about 50 megabytes—which would take less than 10 seconds to cache on a mobile device. He also said datacasting could be done in overnight bursts that would not disrupt regular TV programming. He noted there are challenges, though, including the fact that FLO TV’s broadcasts—and datacasts—are transmitted to every subscriber’s mobile device. Datacasting to mobile devices also is complicated by a technical difficulty in that mobile devices often travel in and out of coverage areas.
When asked how aggressively Qualcomm is moving to deliver this high-bandwidth datacast, Jacobs said the existing system already supports datacasting and “there are some data content streams that are being sent over Flo TV” now. (Stone later told me sports datacasts will begin by the end of July.) For Jacobs, however, the question really is more “a matter of who wants to use it, and what the business model would be.”
Jacobs also noted that Qualcomm never intended to operate Flo TV indefinitely, which is why the company structured Flo TV as a subsidiary. “We didn’t want to be an operator of Flo TV,” Jacobs said, adding that Qualcomm’s options include forming a partnership with an operator or even selling Flo TV. Jacobs pointed out that “nothing is imminent,” which is why he was able to discuss the matter at all, but he also said, “It’s not likely it [Flo TV] will stay the way it is now over the next year.”
In terms of Flo TV programming, Jacobs said “People care about news, financial, and sporting events,” and he also noted that cable TV operators have shown high interest in Flo TV’s business.
I later got more insight in an interview with Stone, who said, “the good news and the bad news about Flo TV” is that Qualcomm launched the service three years ago, which was long before anyone else. The good news, Stone explained, is that Flo TV remains the only mobile TV broadcaster in the United States, so Qualcomm is not in a competitive situation comparable to Sirius and XM, the rival satellite-based digital radio service providers that eventually combined in mid-2008. The bad news, Stone added, is that Qualcomm launched Flo TV “without a lot of key building blocks” so that Flo TV’s broadcasts only reached about half the country until existing additional TV licenses became available and digital broadcasting equipment could be used.
The mobile devices themselves have proved to be another barrier, Stone said. “What we found was that if we bet right on devices, we got subscribers—and if we bet wrong, we didn’t.”
The same thing could be said in general about Qualcomm’s bet on Flo TV. Company executives are trying to figure out what works—and what doesn’t—at a time of rapid convergence among broadcasting, mobile, and Web-based technologies.