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Qualcomm launches MediaFLO in San Diego

Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) announced the San Diego debut Thursday of its service that allows subscribers to watch television on their phones.

Called MediaFLO, the service is currently available only on Verizon phones, and has been available in other markets since March of last year, but technical difficulties in San Diego prevented Qualcomm from launching the service in the company’s hometown.

“Normally when Qualcomm goes out and creates some new wireless technology we try and launch it in San Diego first,” said Paul Jacobs, the company’s chief executive officer.

According to Jacobs, the biggest issue was getting the channel cleared. MediaFLO essentially works like having broadcast television on your phone. With the federal government switching most broadcasting to a digital format, analog channels have been freed up and sold at auction. Qualcomm bought the rights to channel 55 in most markets, but until the digital transition happens next February, Qualcomm is secondary to those companies that already own channel 55. The company had to wait until channel 55’s San Diego occupiers left before moving in.

Qualcomm spent under $100 million on the analog channels, Jacobs said.

MediaFLO currently brings eight channels to phones, most of them specially designed by larger networks. CBS, NBC, Fox, Comedy Central, ESPN and Nickelodeon each have one or more channels that broadcast their own content, though often at different times than on regular television. CBS and NBC for example show their late-night programming, such as the "Late Show with David Letterman" or "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" during the day.

The channels broadcast using Verizon’s VCAST technology.

Gina Lombardi, president of MediaFLO USA, a subsidiary of Qualcomm that makes this technology, said most of the networks made “best of” packages of their entertainment, sports and news shows for this technology.

The service is currently available on four Verizon phones. Jacobs said his company is looking into making some kind of plug-in that would allow more phones to use it, but he said most other phones couldn’t handle the technology right now.

The service costs between $13 and $25. The $25 service also comes with Internet. While some of the content the MediaFLO channels carry indicate it’s aimed at a young audience -- MTV, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," the children's channel Nickelodeon -- Jacobs said he thinks television is universal in its appeal.

“I think they thought it was going to skew young, but I’m not sure that’s the case,” he said. “We made sure we had content that was interesting to people across the board.”

The phones also carry news and business shows.

In the coming months and years, Jacobs said he is hoping to add features like news alerts that tell people when breaking news is on TV, as well as alerts that inform viewers when their favorite shows or sports teams are airing. The phones come with parental controls so parents can dictate what their children watch.

San Diego is the 58th market for MediaFLO. San Francisco remains elusive because the television market is “overbuilt,” according to Jacobs; there’s a stubborn station in Boston that doesn’t want to move, but the technology is in most major markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Verizon would not release exact numbers of how many subscriber to MediaFLO, but Jacobs said the product is selling well.

“We think with the launch of this technology, San Diego is going to be known as being the birthplace of yet another major mobile wireless technology,” Jacobs said. “The United States and now San Diego is leading in wireless technology once again.”

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