Missing the Big Picture

By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

We're supposed to be excited that our mobile phones are getting to be more and more like mobile TVs, thanks to developments like Verizon Wireless's just-announced deal to bring YouTube videos to its V Cast service.

Forgive me if I'm less than thrilled.

This has nothing to do with wanting to use a cellphone only for talking. (Come on, what century are we living in?) It has everything to do with the way carriers have chosen to serve up video on cellphones -- and how little that has in common with how they provide voice and data service.

Both regular calls and Web access are sold without any real limits on their use beyond quantity: If you talk or browse too much, you'll get dinged in next month's bill. Otherwise, you can chat or click away as you wish.

Cellphone video seems to be taking a different path. Even as the Internet is turning TV into an a la carte experience, in which you can get individual episodes or clips from your choice of sites, wireless carriers are sticking with programming packages taken from cable and satellite TV service.

In doing this, they seem to be giving in to two of their least-appealing instincts: a need to regulate every single aspect of the mobile-phone experience and an irresistible urge to nickel-and-dime the customer.

Instead of letting you use the data service you already pay for to find and watch video from any site that works with your phone, these companies would rather "upsell" you on packages that, in concept, differ little from what Comcast or DirecTV would provide.

You may even have to choose between different tiers of service, based on what channels you'd like to watch -- just like having to pay for a deluxe cable package just so you can watch your favorite team's games.

With some carriers, paying for a separate video plan isn't just presented as a good idea -- it's the law. Verizon Wireless outright forbids users from watching any sort of online video over its regular data service network. Cingular hides a similar restriction in fine print.

In Verizon's case, the situation gets particularly absurd. The most advanced hardware this company sells -- the Palm OS and Windows Mobile smartphones like the Treo, which have the screens and keyboards best suited for Web use -- can't run the Get It Now software Verizon uses to run its $15-a-month V Cast service.

But since Verizon has, so far, been unwilling to allow online video viewing outside of the controlled environment of Get It Now, users of a Palm or Windows smartphone who don't want to break their contract are supposed to sit out online video.

(Verizon spokesman John Johnson said that "in the future" V Cast would be made available on these higher-end models, but he didn't have a timetable.)

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