The new MobiTV service, available starting Thursday, will cost $9.99 per month in addition to the monthly fee of $15 that Sprint subscribers pay to use the Internet data connection on their mobile phones.
Although the audio for MobiTV programs will play in a continuous stream, the cell phone screen will not display the equivalent of full-motion video like that seen on a real television. Instead, the video will play at a rate of one or two frames per second, as compared with more than 20 frames per second for real TV.
The programs on most of the MobiTV channels will be identical to the actual programs playing at that hour on the corresponding cable channels, although with a lag of perhaps a minute due to the time it takes to process and transmit the content for a wireless device.
The announcement brings at least one cellular carrier a step closer to transforming the over-hyped concept of next-generation wireless services to reality.
Multimedia services such as Web browsing, music and video have been held up by limitations in the capabilities of both handsets and wireless networks. But ongoing improvements in the phones and network technology are now enabling richer content.
Still, both Sprint and MobiTV provider Idetic Inc. were careful to not to set expectations for the new service too high.
"This isn't the kind of thing where you're going to watch a movie, but it is the kind of thing where the frame rate is fine" for viewing a program such as a newscast, said Paul Scanlan, a co-founder of Idetic. He also cautioned that normal limitations of mobile phone use will still apply.
"It's still cell phone technology, so just like you may get disconnected on a phone call, you could lose the program. If you don't have good reception for a phone call, you're not going to be able to get good reception (for MobiTV)."
While wireless technology is expected to improve enough to provide full-motion streaming video as soon as next year, some handset makers are also trying to bring video to cell phones without the cellular network: Samsung is due to introduce a cell phone with a TV tuner inside that can pick up local television channels over the broadcast airwaves.
Sprint and other wireless carriers are hoping enhanced features like MobiTV will fuel far greater usage of subscription data services, helping cover their hefty investment in wireless spectrum and network upgrades — and eventually driving profits. At the end of September, about 2.7 million of Sprint's 17.8 million cell phone customers also subscribed to the company's wireless online service, PCS Vision.
MobiTV was developed and operated by Idetic Inc., a privately held technology company based in Berkeley, California.
By Bruce Meyerson