Us Westerners know that South Korea is ahead of us in terms of mobile technology, but we often assume that everything that’s launched there is successful, simply because it’s innovative. It appears that’s not always the case though, with DMB a prime example.
It’s digital mobile TV, comparable to having a Freeview or Sky receiver in your mobile phone in the UK, rather than watching streaming TV over your 3G connection. S-DMB (satellite) and T-DMB (terrestrial) have been available in Korea since 2005, but both have encountered problems which are less to do with the technology, and more to do with how they actually make money.
Three broadcasters offer T-DMB channels: KBS, NBC and CBS. There’s seven TV channels and 13 audio channels, and it’s completely free – apparently a decision taken by the South Korean government. By January this year, there were 3.14 million T-DMB users, although the largest proportion is vehicle-mounted systems (1.32 million) compared to 1.13 million mobile phones.
Meanwhile, S-DMB services are provided to the mobile operators by a company called tu media, and launched in May 2005. By January this year, 1.11 million subscribers had signed up, paying a 20,000 Won signup fee, and then 11,000 Won monthly subscriptions (about £10.69 and £5.88 respectively).
There’s 15 TV channels and 19 audio channels available, but they’re not from the big broadcasters. It’s a mixture of entertainment, sports, news, education, with an interactive shopping channel and movies on demand channel where you pay 1,000 Won to watch a film.
“The problem with S-DMB is there’s no killer content,” says C H Kim, Qualcomm’s director of business development in Korea. “The subscriber numbers haven’t been growing since February. Meanwhile, T-DMB is losing money, so they can’t deploy nationwide. The mobile operators say they should charge $4 for it, but the broadcasters have a different mindset, thinking of things like public service. So the problem with DMB is not the technology, it’s the business model.”
There are other issues too. Rights wrangles mean that for some of the biggest potential DMB shows – a big football match for example – it won’t be shown on DMB even when one of the T-DMB broadcasters is showing it live on their terrestrial channel. That’s probably why the most popular T-DMB shows are soap operas, which air simultaneously on normal TV and DMB.
Despite his downbeat assessment of DMB’s problems in Korea, Kim is nevertheless confident of its growth in the future. “By the end of this year, we expect total DMB users to pass ten million, and next year probably 25 million,” he says. “Two years from now, 75% of all mobile users here will have it.”
That’s based on predicted DMB-capable handset sales, mind. But given the current usage rates (around 50% of people with DMB handsets actually use the DMB function), it’s still a healthy potential audience. Now, if only someone can figure out how to make a profit from it…