Microsoft TV resides on boxes
IPTV began coursing through its fiber-optic veins in San Antonio in December, as "the new AT&T" (formerly SBC) rolled out what it terms a "controlled launch" of Lightspeed, the company's telco video-based service.
"It is precisely what we wanted it to be in terms of easy to use, simple, pretty intuitive for customers," said Jeff Weber, vice president of product and strategy at AT&T. "So that is a huge step in the right direction as we think about this product going forward."
Weber's comments were a vote of confidence for the software and user interface from Microsoft, which shipped Version 1.0 of its IPTV platform in October.
Besides IPTV's sing-song, catchy sounding name and the cutting-edge cache of having "IT" integrated into the name, Ed Graczyk, Microsoft TV director of marketing and communications said IPTV changes the very nature of video delivery to the home.
"Fundamentally, all the advantages are really enabled by the fact that all of the services are delivered over this two-way broadband network," he said. "Because it's a two-way network, you can do a lot of the so-called heavy lifting on servers."
In a broadcast environment the "heavy lifting" has to be done in the set-top box.
This speaks to the basic difference between IPTV and the QAM system that has dominated cable and satellite TV to date. With QAM, all channels are sent into the home, where the set-top box or boxes decide which channel to watch.
If 250 channels are being broadcast into your home, Graczyk said, "the set-top ignores the 249 you're not watching and displays the one you are. But those extra 249 take up a huge amount of bandwidth."
With IPTV, each set-top box in the home sends a request to a server located at the service provider, and the server sends back just the channel requested. Regardless of the number of channels available, even if many are HD, the amount of capacity into the home need only be enough to handle one channel per set-top box plus enough for data and voice.
"Twenty to 25 megabytes is in the ballpark as far as a couple TVs and the phone, Internet service, a couple of hi-def channels," said Charlie Guyer, spokesman for Alcatel, the French system integrator for Lightspeed, as well as the provider of critical hardware such as the edge servers.
The 20 to 25 Mbps into the house requirement allows AT&T to use existing copper wiring from a neighborhood-serving node into the home. From that node, up through the network, everything is fiber. Servers at the service provider send individual IP video streams down the network through the serving node and into the house via the copper wire.
Guyer noted that for connecting from a serving node to new construction, "people by and large aren't putting new copper in the ground. If they're opening up the ground they're going to put fiber in."
While some day AT&T may find new services require replacing the copper wire with fiber into the house, "we're always having advances in how we can compress through compression technologies," said Guyer. He noted that IPTV already uses higher compression MPEG-4 or VC-1 rather than the older technology MPEG-2 used by broadcasters and digital cable.
Graczyk said that the ability to use existing copper wiring into homes served is only one of the advantages of IPTV. Another is that the channel switching is done in software on the server rather than in the set-top box.
"Channel tuning time for the consumer is significantly faster than in digital broadcast," he said. "So cable and satellite take one to two seconds to tune a channel; we do it in about 300 milliseconds."
In a demonstration on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash. campus, Graczyk showed a Major League Baseball application where the viewer can watch and listen to one game occupying most of the screen, with three smaller pictures of games taking place at the same time.
When the viewer switches to another game, the two pictures switch places with a DVE-ish move. And though the viewer is watching video from four games at once, they are combined upstream on the network and sent to the viewer as a single channel.
Because the network is truly two-way, a customer can request billing details or order an upgrade without phoning the service provider. "And every call costs around $7.50," Graczyk said.
He cited one cable provider who estimated they got 9 million calls per month. "You can do the math, 9 million times $7.50... if we can offload some little percentage just by giving people the ability to view it online, that's potentially a huge savings."
Because the IPTV infrastructure is computer-friendly, Graczyk said video-on-demand systems can be fully integrated in the service.
"The way VOD evolved in cable, it was kind of like a 'second class citizen,' because you were either in live TV, where you got the guide and you can navigate and change channels, but if you wanted to go to video-on-demand, it's kind of this whole different world."
This makes searching live channels and VOD libraries seamless from the user standpoint.
Because most of the functionality of IPTV is not in the set-top, the boxes themselves will require relatively little updating as incremental changes are made to an IPTV system. The servers will receive most of the upgrades.
With cable TV, "the challenge is, any time the software on the set-top box changes, it has to go through this big, long, expensive certification process with Motorola that's called 'Acadia,'" Graczyk said.
"With IPTV we don't have that restriction, in fact we can roll out these incremental updates very easily," he said.
Guyer said the newness of IPTV has required his company and other partners in AT&T's project to learn and invent as they've gone along. He said of the 30-plus IPTV projects Alcatel is leading or participating in around the world, AT&T is the largest.
"Lightspeed is the one that's under the microscope and everyone is using this as the barometer as far as the future of IPTV," he said.
One of the biggest questions he's seen the network's builder ask is if it will scale. "Will it support 18 million people? That's been a challenge but I think it's being addressed very well. AT&T is hitting all its milestones."
AT&T's Weber echoes that optimism.
"We're in the middle of massive network build, in the middle of, in our case, a complete system build, a new suite of systems that we're implementing, obviously a pretty complicated new technology around the IPTV platform, new set-tops, everything was new and new and new."
In spite of all the pioneering technical effort, he said "all came together in a way that's pretty simple for customers. So there's lot's of interesting technology behind the scenes, but from your perspective, sitting in your living room... turn it on, it's really good quality and it's easy to use."
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