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HD poised to drive IPTV deployment

The Cavalier Telephone's MPEG-4 AVC headend is one of the first commercially deployed MPEG-4 AVC headend in the United States. The Richmond, VA-based facility can play more than 2 million homes in Verizon and Comcast territory. (Photo courtesy Tut Systems.)

Ivan Seidenberg, CEO and chairman of Verizon Communications, told broadcasters at last year’s NAB convention in Las Vegas the details of his company’s FiOS (fiber to the home) deployment.

Offering 100Mb/s downstream and up to 15Mb/s upstream, FiOS promises consumers a fast, interactive IPTV network and broadcasters a possible means of circumventing — or at least ameliorating — the thorny issue of multicast must-carry with the cable industry.

With such available bandwidth, FiOS and other IPTV deployments may play an important role in future HD distribution.

“HD Technology Update” talked to Keith Wymbs, Tut Systems director of strategic marketing, to gain a sense of the status of IPTV deployment and the possibilities for HD. Tut Systems, which acquired a video processing division of Tektronix as part of a turnaround strategy in 2002, currently powers 150 IPTV service providers with its technology and integration services.

HD Technology Update: What is the greatest obstacle facing the growth of IPTV in 2006?

Keith Wymbs: No. 1 right now — and you’ll hear this from a number of angles — is the commercial availability of MPEG-4 AVC HD set-top boxes. 2005 was a year of fits and starts. They didn’t have quite the processing power on the chips to support MPEG-4 AVC video and that includes HD.

So in the first half of 2006, we will see set-top boxes supporting SD and HD, across MPEG-2, VC1, MPEG-4 AVC compression and the personal video recorder — all of these components — coming together. Until you have a system on a chip, set-top box growth will be limited. But new chipsets from Sigma Designs and ST Microelectronics, are coming together for 2006.

There’s a lot of interest in this space for Microsoft TV and getting to actual deployments — getting out of the testing phase and proving systems out in a real world deployment. They are trying to change the TV experience and allow viewers to have something different from cable and satellite and throw a lot of processing and hardware at it.

(Microsoft chairman Bill) Gates spoke at CES, and he is behind it and ensures that deployments will go well and scale well and do so into 2007 as well.

HDTU: So, the ability to do HD and the availability of MPEG-4 enabled systems is critical?

KW: The hot button around HD right now in the IPTV space concerns telcos trying to put video over a copper pair. HD requires much higher bandwidth. Uncompressed, it’s over a Gig. MPEG-2 is 17Mb/s, 18Mb/s or 19 Mb/s, and MPEG 4 AVC is under 10Mb/s. When you look at the telco infrastructure — copper and DSL — you’re looking at ADSL 2+ technology and the need to do approximately 12Mb/s at 10,000ft. That is the typical loop capacity for telcos. You have SBC doing deep drops of fiber with VDSL technologies from the node, but the typical telco is ADSL 2+ with 12Mb/s at 10,000ft. You can’t really do HD over that with MPEG-2.

But with MPEG-4 AVC, you can do one channel of HD and a couple of SD. So from a competitive point of view, MPEG-4 AVC will be a way for telcos to get HD to their customers and that is why it is so strategically important.

The big challenge now for them is that MPEG-4 AVC HD solutions in the headend and set-top are just emerging. The chips are just coming out.

In the second half of 2006, you’ll see set-top boxes that will do MPEG-4 AVC HD decoding along with all of the other bells and whistles. Today, they are not available.

HDTU: Has video on demand played a significant role in IPTV growth?

KW: If you look back over the past five years, generally telco IPTV service providers have deployed the broadcast side first. No. 1, they want to get their feet wet, and No. 2 they don’t have subscribers. On the VOD side, you have to have subscribers to sign up in order to get a return on your investment. On the broadcast side, they use that part to build up their subscribers and gain expertise so they can roll out VOD.

HDTU: How would you characterize the IPTV landscape today?

KW: We are coming out of the early adopter phase in all geographies. Various researchers have various market numbers. In-Stat says there are 230 deployments. MRG puts the number at 287. We peg it around 300 deployments. There are probably 2000 to 3000 telcos worldwide, and this is the year that things ramp.

2006 will be the year large subscriber numbers get into the picture. Whether it’s the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) in the United States or post, telegraph and telephone authorities (PTTs) overseas, this is the year of mass commercial deployment.

In early 2006, the FiOS with Verizon will be the primary driving factor for subscriber growth in the United States, and then in the second half it will be the AT&T deployment. A number of tier two and tier one players have announced plans.

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