MPEG-4, HD will keep telcos competitive

With all of the press Verizon and AT&T get for their fiber-based IPTV services, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the thousands of smaller independent telcos nationwide that plan to use their existing copper infrastructure to deliver video in an effort to stay competitive with cable operators that are targeting their core voice business with VoIP.

Satellite service provider SES AMERICOM sees an opportunity to service those newcomers to video distribution with an aggregated line-up of national cable networks as IP-encapsulated MPEG-4 streams for their new IPTV services.

Offering the service gives the company a valuable perspective on the state of IPTV deployment and the issues service providers are facing as they scramble to make video over their networks a reality. IPTV Update turned to Walt Davis, SES AMERICOM IP product management director, to glean a bit of insight.

IPTV Update: Please describe SES AMERICOM’s IP-PRIME service.

Walt Davis: The primary service is geared for telcos getting into the IPTV business. We saw a couple of problems the telcos faced: One is how to acquire and distribute IP encapsulated MPEG-4 signals. For IP PRIME, we can aggregate all the national cable channels into our teleport facility in Vernon Valley (NJ).

We bring in the programs in their native format, which is either MPEG-2 or analog. At Vernon Valley, we do all the transcoding to MPEG-4, all the IP encapsulation in our facility and then we transport those signals over one of our satellites, AMC-9, and make them available to telcos. So, the headend that a telco has to install is relatively modest and inexpensive as opposed to the telco building a full-blown MPEG-4 headend.

The second problem IP-PRIME resolves is local distribution of IPTV. Beyond the headend, IP-PRIME offers the managed solution. We have tested and integrated middleware, CAS (conditional access system) and set-top boxes, and we certify interoperability of their products so we can deliver an end-to-end solution all the way to the consumer’s STB. The benefit to the telco is that they can avoid the rather painful process of integrating middleware, CAS and the set-top.

IPTVU: Could you elaborate a little on how the drop-in solution deals with digital rights management issues?

WD: We're working with NDS, through which we provide end-to-end CAS. We actually manage the encryption out of our Vernon Valley facility for the managed solution, so it’s a complete end-to-end industry-standard, AES-based CAS/DRM solution.

IPTVU: Obviously, cable companies are competing intensely with telcos by offering voice-over-IP services, and telcos are looking to IPTV service to help protect market share. That doesn’t automatically make them experts in video. Is SES AMERICOM offering any support in that regard?

WD: That's one of the key advantages of IP-PRIME. I have some personal experience with a telco that went through this process. The seductive message that a telco hears — a telco that perhaps today already has a DSL service — is that video is just another service over a DSL network. That's a dangerous trap to fall into because video is a completely different service offering.

The IPTV technology is new, but cable and other providers have set the customer-expectation of the service quality throughout the years. The picture quality has to be spot-on all the time. It has to be a very robust service from day one — no outages. Part of the value in IP PRIME, the managed solution, is a working end-to-end solution. Again, we certify interoperability in our lab. We work with our vendors directly to integrate all of these products together. IP-PRIME is the closest thing to a drop-in solution for a telco.

But, clearly there are other areas that the telco needs to cover. There's the whole issue of marketing, customer service and installation; the whole support and maintenance issue. They have to roll the trucks just to install these products, so it's not a slam-dunk for telcos, but it does offer fast time-to-market with a proven solution.

IPTVU: Could you describe the impact MPEG-4 AVC will have on the IPTV market specifically with the ability to use its available bandwidth more efficiently over its DSL network?

WD: That’s one of the key areas enabling IPTV services for telcos. Verizon, AT&T and some of the larger RBOCs claim they can afford to go out and rehab their networks for these types of video services. But, there are many telcos with an installed-base of copper that just can't afford to do large-scale rehab. They have to leverage their existing copper infrastructure, and that inevitably means a smaller pipe into the home than a fiber or VDSL solution. So, the only way they could really provide a quality video service is with advanced video coding like MPEG-4.

IPTVU: From your discussions with these smaller telcos seeking to deliver IPTV service, are they interested in implementing interactive services and have they planned to do so?

WD: Yes. In fact, the ones that we’re talking to and the ones that are trialing IP PRIME are very anxious to get the interactive services up and running. Features like caller ID on the screen sound simple, and individually these features may not be the ultimate solution. But as you implement a portfolio of these types of interactive services, the customers become stickier. You work with a high school or elementary school to get the school lunch menu online. It's more or less the equivalent of an interactive PEG (public access, educational, government) channel in the cable world. The potential is there for local video on demand, such as the local high school football game, spelling bee, etc. Once a telco installs the IPTV network, it's just adding a video stream on the IPTV network.

IPTVU: What other trends do you see emerging?

WD: Another key thing emerging is the new MPEG-4 chipsets in the set-top box. If you look at the business case from the telcos’ perspective, obviously the set-top box is key because you have to put one next to every TV set. Now, there are some set-tops that are multistream, but still you have to install the box in the customer’s home. It's CAPEX on a per customer basis; so clearly for IPTV to be viable, set-top prices have to be affordable and continue to be priced low. At the same time, the functionality has to be there, and until recently we really didn't see chipset vendors with products that would allow for a very robust hardware implementation of set-top boxes. Those products are emerging now. In fact, we’re working with a couple of vendors, Scientific-Atlanta and Amino, on their chipset set-top boxes that actually support MPEG-4 HD and SD in the same box. Once we start to see serious volumes, then prices will get even better for the telcos.

IPTVU: We’re at the beginning of MPEG-4. Considering the advances MPEG-2 has made in efficiency throughout the past 10 years, can you look into your crystal ball and predict where we might be in terms of efficiency with MPEG-4 in a decade? And, will it allow telcos to offer multiple HD channels, SD channels and other services over their copper networks?

WD: Clearly, that's the trend. I wouldn't be able to speculate accurately. I challenge anyone to predict how long MPEG-4 will be around before we come up with even better encoding algorithms, but I know MPEG-4 was designed with a number of “hooks” for improvement overtime. So, I think there's a lot of room left for MPEG-4 enhancements at this point in time. On the SD side, in the past year, we’ve seen encoding rates drop from around 3Mb/s to the low two’s with really good quality, actually staggering quality. The real advancements we’re going to see in the next 12 to 18 months are on the HD side. The HD encoders are just becoming available commercially. But we’re seeing encoding rates today for sports-based HD around 10Mb/s and for traditional broadcast, talking-heads HD around 8Mb/s, and the pressure is to bring those rates down lower and lower. So, I think we’ll see more movement on the MPEG-4 side in HD than the SD, which is all good news.

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