Internet TV Standard Established

Asian markets to be targeted initially


An announcement almost two months ago in Japan about a consortium of TV manufacturers developing an Internet TV standard got brief mention in the television and computer trade press, but it could be a warning shot from yet another competitor in the video distribution marketplace.

Matsushita, Sony, Sharp, Toshiba and Hitachi have banded together to establish a standard for televisions that will receive video programming directly off the Internet. The companies expect to deliver Internet TVs in Japan that comply with the standard by the spring of 2007.

In the present state of Internet video, members of the consortium found a crying need for a standard.

Sony officials in Japan told TV Technology, "Sony considers providing customers more easy and safe ways to use Internet services through TV are key issues," and hence joined the consortium.

Viewing video over the Internet today is anything but easy, with a plethora of encoding schemes, bit rates, resolutions, copy protection techniques and what-have-you.

"The various kinds of formats and standards and things like that that are found are very different and varied," said Dr. Paul Liao, chief technical officer for Panasonic Corp. of North America.

"You need a general purpose PC so that it has the flexibility and capability to view a wide variety of codecs and video rights management systems. That all comes at a cost."

The cost he refers is the $1,000-a-pop media center PC, as well as the time and frustration that come with configuring the PC for each codec, digital rights management system and conditional access programs. Dr. Liao compared that to the several hundred dollar cost of a cable set-top box.

"They're much, much cheaper, so you're really talking about factors of three, four, five or more difference in price," he said.

"That's because whether it's the cable company or the IPTV company, like Verizon, they settle on, they determine things like 'what's the codec?' 'what's the conditional access system?' 'what's the DRM?'

It's the same for terrestrial television reception.

"Every channel on your TV works the same way, on analog it's NTSC and for digital it's all ATSC," Dr. Liao said. "Most important to the consumer, the operation is straightforward.

"The goal here of the five manufacturers is, 'let's agree on what should be the right things to standardize on, and then we can make a very cost-effective solution to the consumer.'"

Aside from the potential cost difference between the new, mass-produced Internet TVs and media center PCs is the viewer experience. Watching television is an experience designed for sitting 10 feet away from the screen with a remote control in hand, not a foot away, as with a PC, with a keyboard and mouse sitting in front.

All of this may leave the American reader wondering why anyone would opt for Internet video when cable and satellite deliver hundreds of channels, and the budding IPTV promises even more. Therein lies one of the reasons the new Internet TVs will be introduced into Japan and other Asian markets first.

"[Sony] is considering to put the first priority to the Japanese market, since Japan is the country which has the most customers' interest," said Sony officials.

"Unlike this country," Dr. Liao said, "[in Japan], the number of channels that are available through terrestrial or cable or even satellite is much smaller. And he identified an additional difference between the United States and households in Japan and some other Asian markets.

"Broadband is both much more ubiquitous among consumers as well as much higher data rates. So it's not unusual to have data to the home that has 100 Mbps service, so the Internet can provide truly broadband service, and you can even consider watching content with HDTV type of quality."

That said, Liao predicts that, with more and more Americans opting for high-speed broadband, it won't be long before Internet TV hits the U.S. side of the Pacific Ocean.

"As that situation changes in other parts of the world, and it's happening surprisingly rapidly, even here in the United States-despite people's worry that we're falling behind the rest of the world-speeds are steadily increasing, and I think it's a natural that we'll see it over here."

One natural advantage Internet TV brings over terrestrial, cable and satellite TV comes in the video-on-demand field, where tens of thousands of movies can sit on servers throughout the world, waiting for the Internet TV viewer to beckon them to his screen.

What the content producer needs to know about Internet TV is very little, other than the possibility of an additional market for his product. Those involved in content delivery may find it's yet another avenue to the viewer's set.

The five companies developing the Internet TV standard are not willing to put their new products up for sale and wait for a content distribution network to develop on its own. They're also developing an Internet portal that will feature Internet video programming.

Sony officials pinpointed three main services on the portal: video-on-demand; daily information service (news, weather, etc); and features such as payment service and recommendation services.

"The people who have televisions that are capable of receiving this type of service would have a natural way to get to the sites, and the content would be formatted correctly for the television experience," Liao said.