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7 October 2009

MediaFLO has first handheld, way too expensive, but it’s a start

After badgering FLO TV at IBC this year, just a few weeks ago and them going all coy and refusing to speak about a personal TV in the wings, all the internet blog reports turned out to be as true as we thought they were, and Qualcomm’s subsidiary FLO TV, a service which can only be received in the US, launched an iPod like personal TV this week.

The US MediaFLO service was launched two and a half years ago but only on a couple of phones which were sold by Verizon and later by AT&T. In January, as the company got a new boss and a new marketing plan, FLO TV said it would go straight to the consumer, bypassing the two major US mobile operators, but never said exactly with what and the personal TV is the first such device.

At IBC the company was only happy to talk about seat back TV versions due out shortly, and would not comment on what it described as ‘rumours and speculation.’ But it did say that by the end of 2010 there would be 10 million MediaFLO devices in circulation, but without saying how this would come about. By the way, it won’t.

Well in the UK we can only sit and cast envious eyes at the US which has finally got a broadcast TV device out which is desirable, but it’s not cheap. Right now there are various TV packages available with the lowest starting at $9 a month. The device itself will cost $250 and comes with a 3.5 inch screen, and is 4.4 x 3 x 0.5 inches and weighs just over 5 ounces. The battery lasts 5 hours watching TV and has 300 hours of standby.

Like the iPod, and very few other devices, it has a capacitive touch-screen, the more expensive type which are easy for using your fingers on, so swipe to change channel, and it comes with a built-in stand to set it upright on a flat surface. It has stereo speakers and a reminder system so you don’t miss the big game (ARE there any big games on MediaFLO?), but no DVR, because for some reason Qualcomm says it doesn’t believe in them for portable devices.

MediaFLO has been estimated as having between 250,000 and perhaps 750,000 customers in the US, through the two big cellular operators, neither or which have put their marketing muscle behind it. Part of their reason for this was that the service was not able to go nationwide until Qualcomm finally had spectrum it had purchased cleared from analog TV signals (which has only just happened), and partly it was because the content on MediaFLO was largely pre-digested made for mobile streaming channels.

Now it is advertising FLO TV as having some programming simulcast with TV channels and some time-shifted from CNBC, Comedy Central, MSNBC, MTV, NBC, NBC 2Go, NBC News, NBC Sports and Nickelodeon. Gone are the initial deals with CBS Mobile, Fox Mobile and ESPN Mobile which were perhaps at the heart of its problems in its Verizon and AT&T Bouquets (although NBC 2Go is still there), but at the same time this grouping of TV channels looks solely focussed on 6 NBC Universal outputs and two from Viacom, so it’s hardly all of US TV.

When we caught sight of this device rumored on US blogs a few weeks back it was seen as having 4GB of memory, and sporting a music broadcast service which allows storage, in the same way that the satellite radios can on Sirius XM. That seems not to have emerged, or at least wasn’t mentioned.

Qualcomm did not reveal its retail partners, but clearly it is having some problems getting the channels it wants for the service and so it may well have a similar problem in turn attracting the Wal-Marts and Best Buys of this world. It will be available in time for the US holiday season, so at least Thanksgiving in mid-November or Christmas.

At the end of the FLO TV press release there is a worrying comment about charging, saying that in order to get the low end $8.99 service the subscription will have to be prepaid for a year, which adds $108 to the cost, making it $358 all told for the first year. There is also a discounted 3 year deal, but you have to pay upfront for that as well. Although there is no activation fee being charged (what activation could there possibly be, whoever heard of an activation fee for a TV set), after the New Year it will charge one, and FLO TV says there will be some regional introductory offers ‘ but never said what they were exactly.

This will be a neat device and possibly a neat service, but very few people are going to take up an offer like that, when there is any doubt that the service may not survive long term and it costs so much. During early 2010 the US will begin to see other broadcast mobile TV devices using a rival technology called ATSC M/H, driven by local broadcasters, and offering standard TV on the same signal as digital TV, for free. Even the FLO TV device could probably be put together for half that price, so is very expensive and the ATSC M/H devices may well undercut it. The service, definitely will.