On 26 August T-Mobile Hungary, the Hungarian subsidiary of Germany’s global telecommunication provider announced the official launch of its 3G mobile network (cf. sources). Not that there hadn’t been 3G mobile services before in Hungary, it’s only that these were not yet "official". Both of the other two mobile operators, Pannon GSM (owned by Telenor, Norway’s largest telecommunications group) and Vodafone Hungary have their own "experimental" 3G networks, meaning that in many cases consumers can use these networks for free, and they can experiment with the new line of services (video conferencing, mobile TV, fast data communication). Of course when one wants to promote the new, faster generation of mobile access (together with the higher rates), adequate services running on it are also needed. So T-Mobile – in the same press release – also announced a new music download service.

On the same day, I read a rather negative review of the service (Ady 2005). So, having tried music downloading in Hungary before, I decided to take a look at the market, and write an objective, and at the same time very opinionated review of what choices a Hungarian person has to obtain digital music from the "network". Thus I am looking at the situation as a consumer, and will come to the conclusion that in our country today legal download services are just not an option.

A game with few players
A year and a half ago, in April 2004 Hungary’s first paid music download service, "Origo Play" was launched by a company named Axelero, the ISP owned by the Hungarian national telecom company (today T-Com). So I gave it a try earlier this year, just to experience the feeling of paying for downloading music. I also wanted to write an article about it, but my experience was so scarce and disappointing that it would have rather been a complaint.

Last week I tried to find all "official" music download services available here, but there were only three of them. I also tried to gather information at the Hungarian Bureau for the Protection of Authors' Rights, because they must know about all of these, but I was a bit disappointed to learn that there are just a few players on the market.

Starting from the back, they directed me to some sites which already have their permission but haven’t started their service yet; there are also radio stations (among them the Hungarian Radio) that make past broadcasts, and musical programs available for downloading, among them in many cases real "treasures": old recordings and rarities (cf. sources). However, none of them is a paid service and, as a consequence, they are not DRM-protected. Some make available their downloads in unprotected Real Audio format, others use the free OGG Vorbis format.

I also took a look at the three Hungarian mobile service providers: Vodafone, in spite of being the biggest European operator, currently does not have a music download service in Hungary (however, as I learned they have a licence to start it), the other two have almost identical services and pricing (cf. sources).

With one Internet-based offer available to everyone (the mobile operators’ services are just for their own subscribers) this makes three options, which do not even compete, since mobile phone subscribers usually do not decide on the basis of the available music services…

The single Internet offer
Every day we hear about the success of internet music download services: iTunes, Connect, MSN, Real and Yahoo are just a few examples, so one might think that we have a huge selection to choose from. The sad truth is that because of legal issues and distribution agreements with the labels none of the mentioned services are available in Hungary. So we have to stick with the only Hungarian download service, which is operated by the local branch of T-Online (cf. sources).

At least this service can be tried by everyone… Well, not exactly everyone, just those who use Windows, and a compatible portable player, since this music store uses Microsoft DRM. Otherwise the whole purchasing process is quite fine. They have a user- friendly interface, lots of information on the used technology, also on DRM, what can and cannot be done with the tracks, and so on. The selection can be searched by title, band or album, or one may just browse by genre. The only problem is that this meta-information is completely messed up (e.g. Pantera (Metal) and Adam F (Drum & Bass) are both classified as Pop, Bódy Magdi (mostly Jazz) is classified as Soul). As I mentioned already, I decided to try it just for the feeling. I was looking for something that I like, and interestingly I did not find such songs easily in the selection. Alright, I have a little bit non-conformist musical taste, so this didn’t really disturb me. Since then I have visited the music store a number of times and I found out that there are bands that I like, I just do not find them easily. And now with a decent line of history I would expect at least some personalized offers like "users who bought this liked those too" – like in the "big" stores. By the way, the selection consists of 130,000 songs, and is continuously growing. However, as I mentioned, important meta-information is missing, or false. Therefore one of the main advantages of music stores, namely information (Kerényi 2004), does not apply here.

When we have already found what we would like, we can listen to the first minute of the track to decide whether this is really the desired song. Of course this first minute comes in very low quality so that no one has the idea of grabbing it. The full track, when purchased, comes in 160 kbits/second WMA format, which would be enough for everything, but alas!, some tracks are distorted! (We do not even have to turn up the volume; the peak of the bassline is cut off.). Bad luck for those who think this is digital music.

The pricing is quite interesting: the "average track" goes for (a little over) € 1, but some tracks go for € 1.4. For what reason, I do not know, I didn’t find a correlation. For this amount of money we receive at most two "licences" (this means the tracks are playable on two computers), but at least they are transferable to an unlimited number of portable players. For the number of CD burns, however, there is no general rule, it is determined on a track-by-track basis. I couldn’t find a lower number than two or a larger number than ten. I didn’t find differences within an album, but there could be, since the terms and conditions say that the user is responsible for checking this for each track. Very consumer-friendly rules, I must say.

Mobile music
It makes sense to compare the two mobile service providers’ music download offerings, because they share the restrictions of the mobile platform, and also because they have similar pricing.

Pannon GSM, which started its service as the first player is a customer of Groove Mobile, an American company which delivers downloadable music to three continents. They licence music from Warner, Universal, Sony, EMI, BMG, V2, and lately also Beggars Group, which is the home of a number of UK independent labels (cf. sources). However, not every label’s offerings are valid in every country, so Pannon’s subscribers can only access "tens of thousands" of songs, paying € 1.6 for each (cf. sources).

T-Mobile has a very similar system (at least on the phone it looks similar) to the aforementioned, but I could not find information on where they license the music from. However, they offer 300,000 songs, so the point goes to T-Mobile in this respect; but not in pricing, they charge € 2.1 for a track.

Both providers use a proprietary DRM solution, for which a freely downloadable program is used that runs only on Symbian operating system-based smart phones. The first such phone appeared around two years ago, and both Nokia and Sony Ericsson are continuing their line with the newest 3G phones. Pannon GSM describes most such phones on the market as supported, while T-Mobile lists only the two newest 3G phones from Nokia as being capable of running the DRM framework. The question is, if the technology used in the new 3G phones is identical to that used in the other Nokia phones, why does the program not support other Nokia models, like their competitor’s?

Pannon GSM writes on its web page that the DRM of the downloaded track is bound to the SIM of the phone, meaning that if we transfer the tracks to another phone and replace the original SIM, the songs will play on the new device. T-Mobile only says that the songs will only play on one’s "own mobile phone", so the tracks can be backed up to an external medium, but will only play on the "own device". This means that neither of the two supports transferring and playing the songs on a PC. The question arising here is that if all of the supported phones are compatible with the OMA DRM standard, why not use OMA DRM? If both companies used the OMA technology, they could be compatible with more devices (meaning a bigger market) and perhaps also with each other (meaning bigger competition). But perhaps this is not their aim…

Both companies provide a 30 seconds pre-listening of the tracks. The tracks are downloaded in AAC format, and – according to the information available on the internet – normally use 700-900 Kbytes from the memory of the phone. After a little bit of counting (1.15 Mbytes for 4m48s: 1150*8/288) this means a bitrate of 32 kbits/second , which results in low sound quality, even in the efficient AAC format – by the way this is the same as the low-quality prelistening bitrate of the aforementioned Internet-based music store. At least the double would be needed to produce enjoyable music pieces, and four times this for CD quality (iTunes also uses 128 kbits/second encoding).

We should also mention download costs. Now that the high-bandwidth 3G networks are in their experimental or early commercial state, network traffic over them is for free, but only for a limited time. However, even in the bigger cities of Hungary we are still very far from decent UMTS coverage. So, if one wants to use the mentioned download services, in most cases one will have to go back to the traditional GPRS/EDGE networks, where browsing and downloading costs can easily double the price of one track, since in Hungary data traffic is not included in the price of the songs.

We can also consider mobile phone ringtones as a kind of digital music, particularly for the latest mobile phones, where pieces of music sound in excellent quality when the phone rings. There are approximately 50 such licences in Hungary this means that around 50 providers may sell musical ringtones. So we can assume that ringtones make up the majority of online music sales. Though I personally do not consider these online music downloads, since they are usually not whole tracks, I think it is worth seeing how much they cost.

Normal polyphonic MIDI ringtones usually cost around € 1.2, better quality, so-called "True Tone" ringing effects (i.e. non musical, e.g. animal voices and other effects) cost around € 1.6, and interestingly "True Tone" music ringtones (copyrighted material) cost € 1.9. So here we can see that there is an extra charge built into music over effects. There is also the possibility of downloading true music tracks as ringtones. Here the charge from each mobile provider is € 2.4, even more than for a whole song!

Summing up the experiences gained: on the mobile market the consumer has to pay up to € 4 for a track that he can only listen to on one phone and nowhere else. And in many cases the sound quality of the purchased music is worse than that of a ringtone. But those people, who are willing to pay € 2.4 for a ringtone, may find this offer tempting…

On the Internet music market, today’s single Hungarian player without any competition sells songs for more than in almost any richer European country and with stricter conditions. The quality of the music is not flawless either, and the information service provided also leaves things to be desired.

We expect that online music is just taking off in Hungary and in the next half year many new providers will enter the market. I am curious.

Bottom line
My experiences of the Hungarian online music market are distressful, and the sad thing is that the same probably holds for the rest of Eastern-Europe, meaning at least 75 million people. Prices are sky high, and quality of service does not even come close to the desired level. With affordable broadband internet access everywhere and no real alternative, file-sharing and illegal music and video downloading rule the scene. DRM-based services will have to become a lot better to beat the free offerings of the (dark)net.


About the author: Kristóf Kerényi is a researcher at Budapest University of Technology and Economics in the SEARCH Laboratory. His interests include mobile and wireless IT security, as well as technological aspects of DRM. He received a MSc in computer science from BUTE. Contact:

Status: first posted 26/09/05; licensed under Creative Commons