MobiTV has succeeded where others have failed and now has more than 2 million paying subscribers.
MobiTV has succeeded where others have failed and now has more than 2 million paying subscribers. David Wood talks to co-founder and chairman Dr Phillip Alvelda.

When you listen to MobiTV co-founder and chairman Dr Phillip Alvelda talk about the early days of mobile broadcasting, it makes you wonder how the business ever got off the ground.

Back in the late 1990s, MobiTV was struggling along with the rest of the fledgling mobile content industry against a series of seemingly overwhelming obstacles which forced many similar high-tech start-ups to the wall.

'We faced difficult technology problems, a tough economic situation [the dotcom and telecoms downturn] and apparently insurmountable infrastructure problems. I can't tell you how many times people told us what we were trying to do was impossible.'

In a perverse way it only made Alvelda more determined. 'If there's anything that motivates me it's being told that something is impossible,' he laughs.

He has faced tougher challenges than a touch of untimely market turmoil. Now armed with a PhD and masters degree from the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a former career he was a Nasa scientist designing instruments capable of withstanding the rigours of deep space missions to Mars.

With the words of Winston Churchill uppermost in his mind ('If you are going through hell, keep going') Alvelda persevered, changed his business model from mobile broadcast technology licensing to service development and survived. 'We looked around to see what services we could offer that other companies would not be able to compete with and switched from multimedia clip downloads to licensing and streaming mobile broadcasts.'

It seems to have worked. From the launch of its first live service in the US in November 2003, the California-headquartered MobiTV now streams more than 100 mobile broadcast channels globally and at the beginning of 2007 confirmed that it had more than 2 million paying subscribers - a figure it hopes to improve on significantly in its -latest subscriber figures this month. 'MobiTV has screamed past 2 million and in the case of those of our carriers which are more experienced and better at marketing services we are seeing 85% of the people buying new handsets getting the TV service,' says Alvelda. 'Mobile broadcasting is no longer a technophile thing - it's mass market.'

Operating as an own-label provider for networks such as Orange in the UK and a mobile broadcasting brand for telecom networks such as Sprint and AT&T in the US, MobiTV company has succeeded where many, including BT Movio and Virgin Mobile, have failed.

Lack of demand was BT and Virgin's explanation when it pulled the plug in July. Lack of supply is more likely, according to Alvelda, who insists that the two companies failed to learn the lessons from the success of services such as SMS messaging - namely that services can't be expected to take off until there is mass access. 'BT Movio had one network, a couple of handsets and limited content,' Alvelda says. 'When it's a new service there isn't a lot of awareness in the early days. It faced challenges but made decisions that cut off a large part of its potential market.'

It's not a mistake MobiTV intends to make. To be a success, particularly early on, you have to ensure your services are available to all platforms, advises Alvelda. Which is why MobiTV does not have preferences for mobile broadcasting standards such as DVB-H or DAB-IP.

Ultimately, Alvelda foresees a time when the complexities of the market, with its different handsets, operating systems and broadcasting technologies, are ironed out. 'A technology will emerge that will service all the different devices across one infrastructure, providing great cost saving for the consumer and great simplification of how content can be delivered,' he says.

When it comes to content, some insist short clips work better than longform programming but Alvelda refuses to be prescriptive - particularly now MobiTV offers a full-length download services for shows such as Heroesand Battlestar Galacticawith US broadcaster NBC.

'Does the fact you can't read it in one sitting prevent you from buying a book?' he reasons. 'No, because you know you can pick it up from where you left off. We were very careful to ensure that the full-length shows and movies were on-demand with pause and resume features. At the same time, we supported the live streaming of content that had great immediacy - such as sports and news.'

As for the future - the subject of Alvelda's keynote speech at IBC - look no further than the iPhone. 'It's a harbinger,' he declares, referring to the ripples the iPhone created with its virtual keyboard and touch-screen interface. 'Phone manufacturers have realised they have to spend more time polishing their interfaces or they won't be able to compete.'

Another trend is AT&T's deal with Apple, where the telephone company is the iPhone's exclusive carrier but does not collect a tariff on value-added services and has played little role in defining the product. 'It has sold a tremendous number of iPhones - 400,000 in the first few days. It's paid off for AT&T with a dramatic increase in new subscribers. I've heard several analysts say that over 40% of new subs came from other carriers.'

The lesson is clear, Alvelda concludes. 'The carriers are learning that if they keep out of the way and let their high-level partners innovate, then they can encourage and foster development - which is good for business.'

IBC session
Connecting content with consumers - where to deliver
8 September 14.00-15.30Forum
Dr Phillip Alveldawill deliver the keynote speech