NEW YORK --Picture whipping out your cell phone and catching up with "Lost" or "Jeopardy," or watching the local 11 o'clock news, all for free. You can do this with an imported Chinese phone, but you can't with any phone sold in the U.S. -- at least not without monthly charges. This is one of the reasons the United States is behind several other countries when it comes to making television an attractive option for cell phones. Carrier business models are partly at fault, but choices about TV technology made long ago are largely to blame. Most phones sold in Japan can tune in to free TV broadcasts, and there are tens of millions of viewers. Cell phones that can tune in to free broadcasts are also available in South Korea, Germany and China. But only 3 percent of Americans regularly watched video on their cell phones late last year, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That figure includes people who watched short, downloaded clips rather than broadcast TV. For starters, you can blame the impending shutdown of all full-power analog TV broadcasts on Feb. 17, a deadline set by the government. That Chinese handset, made by ZTE Corp., can only tune in to analog transmissions. Because most of them are going away, there's no real point in selling phones like that in the United States. China is keeping its analog broadcasts until 2015, six years longer than the U.S., so the phones are viable there. Ironically, the TV reception chip inside comes from a U.S. company, Telegent Systems Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif. The analog U.S. broadcasts are being replaced by digital broadcasts, but there are no phones anywhere that can tune in to those. When the U.S. digital TV standard was laid down in the early '90s by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, it was optimized for high-definition signals to stationary antennas, according to Mark Richter, president of the industry group. At the time, cell phones had screens that could display eight digits and nothing else, so little thought was given making the broadcasts work with mobile gadgets. The Europeans created their digital television standard later and made it a bit more amenable to mobile reception, Richter said. Thus, there are now phones sold in Germany that can receive local digital broadcasts intended for stationary TVs. Weijie Yun, Telegent's chief executive, said it's theoretically possible to receive U.S. digital terrestrial broadcasts on a phone, but engineers have yet to overcome key technical challenges. For now, Telegent's chips can receive analog broadcasts in most countries of the world, and digital broadcasts in Europe and a few countries outside it. Because U.S. phones can't receive regular broadcast TV, carriers have had to look to other solutions. Cell-phone technology company Qualcomm Inc. has created a network that broadcasts signals designed for cell phones. AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless sell some handsets that can tune in to these broadcasts. Sprint Nextel Corp. has contracted with another company, MobiTV Inc., which streams lo-fi streaming video over the phones' broadband connections. The fourth national carrier, T-Mobile USA, doesn't have a TV service. The common denominator for the existing services is that they cost money, limiting their adoption. AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge $15 per month for 10 channels. Sprint bundles MobiTV with some high-end plans and charges $9.99 per month as standalone service. In-Stat analyst Michelle Abraham estimates that Qualcomm's MediaFLO has 100,000 subscribers. MobiTV has done better, with about 4 million subscribers. Research director John Barrett at analysis firm Parks Associates points to the fees as a problem, and recommends that operators provide free content. "A free taste would go a long way in making the consumer case for mobile TV," he wrote in a recent report. "Mobile TV services have taken off in Japan and South Korea, where service is offered free of charge. In Italy, where additional fees have been the norm, usage has been limited." This month, Toshiba Corp. announced it would end a pay-TV system for handsets because of the popularity of free TV broadcasts. "That's one of the key barriers," Telegent's Yun said. "Once you start charging consumers, they start getting turned off." U.S. TV broadcasters are quite eager to provide free broadcasts to cell phones, just as they do to TVs with "rabbit-ear" antennas. They've formed the Open Mobile Video Coalition, which estimates that advertising-financed TV for cell phones could be a $2 billion market. They want to reach cell phones through another wireless standard the ATSC is creating. It will use regular TV frequencies to reach mobile gadgets, meaning TV stations will be able to broadcast from existing towers. The goal is to complete the new standard, called ATSC-M/H, by the first quarter of next year, Richter said. That could mean broadcasts will be operational before the end of next year. It's not completely clear that the technology would be used for free TV -- the possibility to charge viewers monthly fees will be built in -- but it would be natural for broadcasters to simulcast their regular advertising-financed programming on the mobile channel. The big question then, Abraham said, is whether broadcasters will be able to persuade carriers to sell TV-capable phones. AT&T spokesman Michael Coe said it was too early speculate. "If the answer ends up being 'yes,"' Abraham said, "then that opens up a very large market."
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