Watching brief

A more coherent and proactive policy is required if Europe is to lead the way in mobile TV, argues Viviane Reding.

Mobile TV will challenge our way of experiencing television and audiovisual services. It will offer the possibility of viewing any content, any time, anywhere, and provide for a new world of interactivity, where traditional and on-demand creative contents consumption is supplemented by services tailored to the needs and tastes of each consumer.

According to some estimates, around 200 million Europeans could be viewing television via a handheld terminal by 2015 and the market could be worth over £13bn (€20bn). Today, however, mobile TV is still a nascent market in Europe and much more remains to be done.

While multimedia services over 3G are widely diffused and growing, TV broadcasting to mobile terminals is available only in a few countries, although the combination of broadcasting technologies and 3G is obviously the only way to provide mobile TV services on a large scale. Italy was the first to launch commercial offerings last year. Services are also available in Germany and the UK, and this year commercial offerings will be launched in France and Finland.

The potential is there but it is a market still in its infancy, and to flourish it needs clear signals from policy makers on issues such as spectrum, standards and licences. As long as so many uncertainties remain, obstacles are not retrieved, perspectives of economies of scale are not given, the offer will not explode.

I am convinced that the problem is not the demand but the offer. I know that mobile TV will first develop on national markets and that cross-border offers will remain the exception. But this should not mean that Europe could afford 27 national strategies. We need one clear, coherent EU strategy for all industries involved to invest and create the conditions of a large take-up.

One year ago at CeBIT I called upon industry to get together, reflect on the key challenges for successful European mobile TV and propose a roadmap for Europe. That’s how the European Mobile Broadcasting Council (EMBC) was set up.

I had asked industry in particular to address issues related to technology. The challenge is to provide technological solutions that are best suited to ensure the availability of mobile TV anytime and everywhere, including at home, and making technological choices that allow attractive commercial offers.

It is reckoned that some 200 million Europeans could be watching TV on handhelds by 2015

European industry, supported by EU-funded research, is largely behind the technologies being used today to launch mobile TV services throughout the world. I therefore expect from EMBC clear answers on how to best deal with this challenge. What we really need now is to decide and draft a European strategy for a swift and large take-up in Europe.

I am convinced that the use of widely- recognised open standards is of paramount importance to achieve economies of scale. Only then will we have an efficient use of spectrum, affordable handsets and rapid consumer take-up. Therefore, I am prepared to strongly support European standardised solutions, such as DVB-H, on the condition that they provide certainty about technology licensing terms and conditions. Without this certainty and predictability, it will be impossible to invest with confidence in innovative technologies. Industry should therefore foster work in this direction.

Achieving a maximum of interoperability between distribution technologies and mobile TV devices is also of key importance. In the case of mobile TV this is extremely challenging from a technical point of view as it involves working on different layers of interoperability, encompassing both transmission and services.

Another key factor for mobile TV’s success — and an area where a lot has been done over the last year — is radio spectrum. If we want mobile TV to be the next economic carrier wave of technological, industrial, and consumer services growth, we have to make sure that there are sufficient and suitable frequencies for these services to take off.

In the short term, we have taken steps, together with the member states, to ensure that some harmonised frequencies are made available to allow services to get started. At the same time, I am aware that the final choice on the best suitable bandwidth is linked with the choice of the best adapted technology.

One thing is clear: without at least some co-ordination at European level, market fragmentation will prevent a successful take-up in Europe.

But a quick and large take-up needs a clear regulatory environment. We cannot expect European industry to lead the way in developing new mobile services if it is confronted with 27 or more diverging sets of rules. Licensing regimes must make sense in terms of the internal market.

I am convinced that we need a common European approach to set conditions for a rapid and wide deployment of mobile TV. The opportunities for growth are there. Many new European jobs can be created. Mobile TV is a wonderful example of the opportunities that digital convergence offers. The success of new converging technologies is a challenge requiring effort, commitment and creativity.

Viviane Reding is the European commissioner for the Information Society and Media. Edited extracts of a speech given at a recent CeBIT event.