The IPTV buzz

If you think …

… that IPTV is the acronym for Iowa Public Television, you probably live in Iowa and have never used the Internet.

… that IPTV means you'll be able to drop that expensive multichannel TV service in the near future, you probably spend a lot of time waiting for video to download to your computer.

… that IPTV is the future for multichannel TV services, you probably spend too much time attending Congressional hearings, or you may be a lobbyist for Verizon, AT&T or Bell South or a fortune teller.

Understanding IPTV

Type “Internet Protocol Television” or “IPTV” into an Internet search engine, and you'll get 30 million hits. It is difficult to find an acronym that has generated as much discussion, misunderstanding and hype as IPTV.

At IBC in Amsterdam, IPTV was on center stage, with a full day of papers and discussion panels. And, if you are a manufacturer of video products, chances are good that you are trying to figure out a way to promote existing products for IPTV applications.

While IPTV is one of a growing list of options for the distribution of video content, the reality is most video manufacturers don't have many offerings in terms of core IPTV technologies. This is because, fundamentally, IPTV is about delivering content as IP packets via a range of networks.

Broadcasters use IP networks in their facilities. And they are beginning to use the Internet to promote and deliver some of the content currently distributed via terrestrial broadcast and multichannel TV services.

Cable companies use some of their system bandwidth to provision IP-based broadband and VoIP services. They are expected to migrate their traditional video content to IPTV-based distribution as they upgrade from analog and digital tiers that currently multiplex several MPEG transport streams into a 6MHz channel.

Direct broadcast satellite is likely to lead the way for cable. These services are already digital — currently using MPEG transport streams. And they are introducing new IP-based services, including enhanced interactivity. DIRECTV and DISH Network are also bidding for terrestrial wireless licenses, which will likely be used to enhance these services with localized IP and telephony services.

And then there's the sleeping giant, the continuously morphing telcos, who have been building their IPTV infrastructure for years, bringing fiber-optic cables to your neighborhood. Verizon offers its fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) FiOS, with triple-play service. The company now has video franchises covering 3 million households in nine states and more than 100 franchise areas. AT&T (acquired by SBC) and Bell South will base its TV services on a hybrid network with fiber to neighborhood “routers” and existing copper lines for the last few hundred feet.

The competitive landscape

While many people use the term IPTV to describe the entire emerging landscape of television delivered via IP networks, others insist that IPTV refers only to the “walled garden” services now offered by the telcos that are competing against the well-entrenched cable and DBS systems.

There is a very good technical reason for this distinction. The ability to maintain the same level of image and service quality as cable and DBS is not easily achieved using traditional broadband services and the public Internet.

With the Internet, some of the packets may be lost as they are routed from the source (a server) to the destination, where the content is reassembled and presented. These lost packets are typically retransmitted to the destination. And all IP packets may not arrive in the same sequence as they were sent.

For most files (even downloaded IP media files), this is not a major concern. When the media is being streamed and viewed in real time, however, lost packets pose a problem, causing momentary loss of signal or picture/sound impairments.

The telco IPTV networks are designed to deal with these QoS issues. While broadband data may be part of the service bundle, it is better to think of telco IPTV systems as private networks with access to the public Internet. These networks treat the TV portion of the triple play in much the same way as traditional cable systems, assuring that most packets will arrive free of errors and on time. A forward error correction (FEC) layer is typically added to deal with the few packets that may be corrupt.

With FTTP systems, all of the video channels are typically delivered to every home, where the set-top boxes (STBs) pick out the IP packets needed to display a channel. These systems also use IP packets to deliver video-on-demand services, as well as the other components of the triple play — VoIP and broadband data.

Hybrid fiber/copper systems typically deliver all available channels to the neighborhood router along with VOD and other packet data services. A channel request from an STB causes the router to send the appropriate packets to that STB over an existing copper wire connection using DSL or ADSL technologies. These systems usually max out at about 25Mb/s per home, which may impose some limitations on the number of sets that can be served when high bit rate HDTV channels are requested.

Because IPTV networks already use IP packets, they can provide easier integration with existing in-home data networks. Verizon plans to offer a networked DVR accessible from other STBs in the home. The STBs will also have access to media files saved on personal computers in the home. Verizon will charge $19.95 per month for the Home Media DVR and $3.95 per month for standard definition “client” STBs.

You might think that IPTV services from the telcos are not going to have a huge impact, but IPTV could change some things on the competitive landscape of multichannel television. The cable guys are asking regulators to require these new entrants to play by the same rules that apply to cable franchises, i.e. the telcos must apply for and get a franchise for each market they want to enter.

The telcos are working overtime in the nation's capital to get a national franchise law passed that would eliminate the need for local franchise authority. A bill passed in the House in June granted national franchises, but it is stuck in the Senate and may not pass this year.

Meanwhile, the DBS guys are bringing up the idea of a merger in Washington again. The second attempt is due to the premise that there are more competitive options now than there were a few years ago when the FCC denied the proposed merger of DIRECTV and DISH Network.

Who can blame everyone from wanting a piece of the action? The cost of multichannel TV services has been growing faster than the rate of inflation for more than a decade. The price competition expected from DBS hasn't really materialized.

So, yes, IPTV could one day be the distribution method of choice. Then again, maybe not, if the future follows past precedent.

Watching the back door

So why is there so much interest in IPTV? The obvious reason for concern is that the public Internet has shown itself to be a competitive threat to entrenched businesses of all kinds.

The media conglomerates have worked hard to try to control the evolution of the Internet. They have enjoyed considerable success in Washington, influencing copyright laws and a wide range of control mechanisms to protect their lucrative businesses from Internet competitors.

While these tactics were successful with lawmakers, they may have hurt the industry's position on a different front: public perception. The public seems to be awakening to the knowledge that these conglomerates can exert tremendous control over content creation and distribution. The idea that someday everyone will be able to access the content they want, anywhere at anytime, is the underlying rationale behind the IPTV buzz.

While the anywhere, anytime mantra is still vaporware, the philosophy is compelling. The Internet allows a growing number of content consumers to become content creators. Their podcasts and blogs are turning the traditional media world upside down.

Ironically, the industry that fought to control media distribution could be helping to make all of this possible. The triple-play service opens the door for new forms of competition. With broadband access to the Internet, a new world of IP media content is just a download away. Even streaming media coverage of real-time events is becoming tolerable.

IPTV has caught everyone's attention. Whether its going to be the cable killer the telco's hope remains to be seen. In any case, competition usually lowers consumer prices, and who can argue with that?

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

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