Picture Imperfect

(By Melissa M. Maltby -- The Washington Post)
By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, December 13, 2007

This time of year, people's thoughts of TV-watching often turn to large screens -- bright, flat-panel displays that dominate walls.

But this has also been a big year for the little screen, what with YouTube clips and TV show downloads to iPods and other media players.

The latest contender in that category comes from Verizon Wireless. Its V Cast Mobile TV service allows you to watch television on your phone -- at a resolution closer to regular broadcast TV, and without waiting for downloads to start. Mobile TV can do that because, unlike other Web-video services provided by wireless carriers in the United States, it doesn't run on the same airwaves as your phone calls.

The same approach brought upgraded video services to phones in Europe and Asia a few years ago -- for example, by March 2006, more than half a million South Korean users were paying an average of $13 a month to watch TV on their phones, according to industry analyst and consultant Alex Besen.

Mobile TV, which uses a Qualcomm technology called MediaFlo, is the belated U.S. debut of the concept.

It's still not the greatest exhibit of what's possible in wireless video. Cost, thin coverage and limited selection place this service somewhere between regular TV and its Web offshoots.

It can help some video-starved customers keep up with their favorite shows and games, but only if they're in the right places with the right cellphones -- and willing to run up their cellphone bills.

Mobile TV starts at $13 a month for a bundle of Fox, NBC, NBC News and CBS. The $15-a-month plan includes channels from Fox, CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, NBC, Nickelodeon, NBC News and ESPN.

The channels don't match the ones you watch on TV. Instead, they offer a grab-bag of shows; for example, the NBC News channel combines shows from CNBC and MSNBC.

Because V Cast Mobile TV requires a separate receiver in each cellphone and separate transmitters to broadcast the signal, it works only on a handful of phones and in a tiny fraction of Verizon Wireless's coverage area.

Four Verizon Wireless-issued phones, selling from $100 to $300, can receive Mobile TV; I tested it on a $300 LG Voyager lent by the company.

Verizon Wireless provides the service in 50 metropolitan areas nationwide-- a ways away from its description of TV "that goes wherever you go." In the Washington area, coverage reaches most of the farther suburbs in Virginia but peters out not far south and east of the Beltway in Maryland.

Even in the central part of the District, I usually had to extend a thin, frail-looking wire antenna from one end of the phone to pull in a signal. And sometimes Mobile TV defied all my attempts to get it to work.

At my desk at The Post's downtown headquarters, for example, the signal rarely held steady for more than a minute.

A desk in the center of an office building is not the fairest test of reception -- I've had enough issues just making phone calls from there. But Mobile TV occasionally dropped out even at a spot in Arlington where Verizon Wireless phones have always had reliable reception. For one spell late at night, it performed no better than it had at my office.

This iffy performance reminded me of watching digital TV broadcasts with a less-than-reliable tuner -- but there was no high-definition video to reward my efforts. With a clear signal, Mobile TV's picture quality looked no better than that of VHS tape.

Also, watching TV drained the phone's battery much faster than usual; after four hours, the Voyager pronounced itself unable to stay tuned into a broadcast, although its display indicated that about a fifth of a charge was left.

Lastly, there's the content available on Mobile TV. The writers' strike has deprived television in general of a great deal of new material, but even factoring that in, Mobile TV's bill of fare constitutes some pretty thin gruel.

Much of the current schedule is filled with reruns chosen seemingly at random (for example, an episode of Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" that first aired around Valentine's Day). Verizon Wireless's recent moves to bring college football bowl games to the service may provide more compelling viewing.

You can choose what to watch from a compact on-screen programming grid -- and parental-control features let you limit what shows are available -- but otherwise you get few of the conveniences available with broadcast or Web-based TV. For example, there's no pause button like any digital video recorder has.

The whole exercise feels like an evolutionary detour that will be left aside as wireless-data connections get faster and become more widely available. Why bother with the expense and complexity of a separate signal for TV when you can stream that video over an Internet connection?

We may have to ask the same thing about "real" TV in the coming years.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/

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