RealNetworks to unveil big European wireless deal

RealNetworks Inc. expects to announce a deal with a large European mobile operator next week that will see its software used to provide audio and video services in 28 European countries over wireless networks that support data delivery.

Promising the “largest rollout to date” of multimedia services over Europe’s enhanced second-generation (2.5G) and emerging third-generation (3G) networks, RealNetworks’ client and back-end server software will provide the technology behind the mobile offerings, according to the company’s public relations agency.

RealNetworks didn’t name the operator ahead of the announcement, although industry analysts pointed to Vodafone Group PLC as perhaps the only European operator with sufficient reach to cover more than two dozen countries. “I’d be surprised if that’s not who it is,” said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst for wireless infrastructure at Current Analysis Inc., in Sterling, Virginia.

Neil Mawston, a senior analyst with Strategy Analytics Ltd.’s global wireless practice in Milton Keynes, England, also pegged Vodafone as the likely partner based in its broad coverage. Neither analyst claimed knowledge of the deal.

The service, which is expected to let users play audio and video clips streamed or downloaded to their mobile phones, is scheduled to be rolled out by the end of the year. France is among the countries where the service will be offered.

RealNetworks declined any official comment on the deal, calling it a rumour.

RealNetworks makes the RealOne Mobile Player for playing content on handheld devices, as well as the Helix content delivery system used by mobile operators and other service providers. It competes in the market primarily with software from Microsoft Corp.

Both vendors have found success with their media software in the maturing PC market and hope to crack the more vibrant wireless arena as a way to secure future growth. Approximately 400 million handheld devices will ship worldwide this year compared to about 100 million PCs, RealNetworks said.

RealNetworks cited its progress in the market, which includes deals with Nokia Corp. and Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, as well as with U.S. service providers AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. A deal with Vodafone would extend its lead over Microsoft in terms of support for its media software, Mawston said.

“RealNetworks is pretty much in pole position at the moment and I see them there for the long term,” he said.

Europe’s 2.5G networks, based on the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) standard, offer effective data transfer rates of up to 28Kbps barely sufficient to stream video. The 3G networks based on the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) standard, which are being rolled out in pockets, offer significantly faster throughput of up to 380Kbps, Rehbehn said. He predicted it will be three years before UMTS use is widespread.

In the interim, the Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) standard, which will be deployed by some operators over existing GPRS networks, will support throughput rates of about 100 bps, Rehbehn said, adding: “Which is enough that data services start to get interesting.”

“What’s great about the RealNetworks technology is that you can actually get the live feed from a television station or a radio station and it’s optimized for the … limitations of the mobile phone,” he said.

In a separate announcement, RealNetworks said Tuesday that its RealOne Mobile Player included with Nokia’s Series 60 mobile phone software now supports playback of content streamed in the 3G Partnership Project (3GPP) media format. Previously it could only playback 3GPP content stored locally on a device. RealOne Mobile Player also supports playback and streaming of its own RealAudio and RealVideo formats.

As well as offering Series 60 in its own phones Nokia has licensed the software to Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Siemens AG, Sendo Ltd. and Panasonic, a brand of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd.

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