Wednesday interview: Bruce Renny of ROK on free mobile TV

Interviews, Mobile phones

I’ve seen the future, and it’s monkeys reading the news. Honest. I saw it on FreeBeTV, a new mobile TV service from ROK which launched last week. Monkey News Network (MNN for short) is one of the five launch channels on the service – the others have less monkeys but more extreme sports, comedy, cartoons and movies.

It capped a busy period for ROK, which launched its Viper mobile Voice-over-IP service the week before, taking aim at operator call charges by allowing people to make internet calls if they’re in range of a computer with Bluetooth.

ROK’s marketing director Bruce Renny has plenty to say on both subjects, so I’m splitting the interview into two parts. Today deals with the mobile TV side, while on Friday I’ll follow up with the VoIP area.

FreeBeTV has its roots in the ROK Player, a technology launched by the company three years ago to squeeze content – mainly films and music albums – onto memory cards, which could then be played on mobile phones.

The company patented its compression and copy-protection technologies, and then developed them into a streaming mobile TV service called ROK TV, which was designed to work on 2.5G phones over a GPRS connection, rather than just 3G.

"Our 2.5G service performs better than any 3G service out there," says Renny. "It’s full-screen, and has a higher frame-rate than any 3G service. But it’s purely a showcase: our shop window to the operators around the world, who want to offer a mobile TV service to their customers without restricting it to 3G users."

However, FreeBeTV is ROK’s full-scale attempt to launch a mobile TV service directly to mobile users, rather than via the operators. Renny says the company has learned plenty of lessons from its work with operators, about how people watch mobile TV.

"It’s three minutes per session, three times a day," he says. "That’s the typical behaviour. People want short, sharp bursts of information. Half the hits are for live news and sports updates, and the other half is content like music videos. This has large implications for the mobile TV space going forward. Broadcast TV, where you stream live-to-air channels in full, may not fit with this 3×3 viewing model."

He cites Coronation Street as an example, claiming that people are far less likely to watch a whole half-hour episode on their phone than they are to watch edited highlights of the previous show. However, he admits that it’s still early days to work out what will be popular on mobile TV, including whether it will be dominated by existing shows, or new stuff.

"Brand names are important for credibility, particularly when it comes to news and sports," he says. "But there’s also a fantastic opportunity to create entirely new brands with made-for-mobile content. I would like to see people experimenting with new content formats. Think of independent record labels, who could do something really imaginative if they really take the mobile space seriously."

ROK is also launching its own channels on FreeBeTV. Hence Monkey News Network, where a Reuters news feed is filtered through a text-to-speech application developed in-house, and then read out by a lip-synching chimpanzee. Oh, and the sports reporter is a gorilla. "It’s completely deadpan," says Renny. "They’re reading serious news stories, so it has to be. Will people prefer to watch CNN or monkey news? I just don’t know. It’s all experimental."

ROK also wants to launch a user-generated channel called You Made It, which will operate along the same lines as 3 UK’s See Me TV. People will send in their cameraphone video clips, and ROK will edit them into a coherent channel. FreeBeTV was announced on Friday, and Renny says so far over 4,000 people have downloaded the application, and it’s got well in excess of 1,000 actual viewers. The service supports around a dozen handsets at the moment, although this will expand.

The big problem with FreeBeTV is that it’s off-portal, meaning that while you don’t pay for the service itself, you do have to pay your operator data charges, which for many contracts are charged by the megabyte.

So in an average example, where your operator charges, say, £2.35 per megabyte of data you use, a streaming mobile TV service can work out as very expensive. And if it’s higher – which is the case for some pay-as-you-go tariffs – you could be looking at a monster bill. Isn’t this a big problem for something like FreeBeTV? In short, yes.

"I’ve never understood why the networks charge so damn much for GPRS in Britain," says Renny. "I can see no reason for them doing it, although cynics might propose that it’s an effort to get customers to sign up for 3G quicker. If Britain doesn’t have the most expensive GPRS prices in the world, it’s certainly right up there. But Britain is just a small rock in the sea. We’re more interested in places like India, China, Brazil and North America, where GPRS is either all-you-can-eat or virtually free."

Those are bullish words. I’m sure ROK would be interested in the UK if these data-charging problems went away though. Renny admits that T-Mobile’s Web’n’Walk tariff is a move in the right direction, charging a flat fee of £7.50 a month for unlimited data usage. "T-Mobile have broken ranks, and the others will have to follow suit," says Renny.

Stuart Dredge
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