In time for the Olympics, MetroPCS is selling the first phone that can receive local TV signals, potentially lending TV stations some relevance in the age of the smartphone.
MetroPCS Communications, the country's fifth-largest cell phone company, started selling the Samsung Galaxy S Lightray 4G for $459 on Friday. It has a built-in, extendable antenna that can receive special TV signals, broadcast from regular TV towers for reception by cell phones and other small gadgets.
The phone costs about $200 more than the equivalent phone without TV reception, but there's no recurring TV fee.
It's technically difficult to get phones to tune in to regular broadcasts destined for TV sets. Instead, the Samsung phones receive special "Mobile DTV" signals. They're retransmissions of the main broadcast channels, but at a lower resolution and separate from the cellular network.
Dallas-based MetroPCS is the only major U.S. cell phone company to support Mobile DTV. Verizon and AT&T used to sell phones that received subscription-based national channels, but that network was shut down last year for lack of consumer interest.
There are 120 Mobile DTV stations in the country. In New York, there are four, and in Chicago, five. NBC, which is broadcasting the Olympics, is a supporter of Mobile DTV, and local NBC stations are available in many cities.
Only about 10 percent of households watch over-the-air TV. Nearly all of the remainder subscribe to cable or satellite services. Meanwhile, smartphone usage is skyrocketing, so the Federal Communications Commission is set to shrink the amount of airwaves allocated to local TV broadcasts and reallocate them to cellular data networks. It plans to run auctions where cell phone companies would pay TV stations to vacate some of their frequencies.
It's possible to watch live TV on cell phones in several other countries, but it's only become a mainstream phenomenon in South Korea and Japan. Even there, smartphones without TV capabilities, including the iPhone, are crowding out domestic TV-capable phones.
Meanwhile, a New York-based start-up, Aereo, is taking TV signals off the air and relaying them to iPhones and iPads through the Internet for $8 per month. The service is available only in New York, but the company plans to expand availability. TV stations have sued, saying it's illegal to redistribute their signals without paying for them.