IPTV – What to expect at IBC2008

The broadcast industry maintains a strong level of interest in IPTV. Although there are relatively few success stories around the world in terms of enthusiastic subscriber take-up, there remains plenty of optimistic forecasting in favour of IPTV becoming a part of daily life for us all.

IPTV is establishing itself as a delivery medium for closed-broadcasting networks, in-room hotel video services, for instance, but its reach into the average household remains a growing market. IPTV is backed heavily by telco operators who stand to benefit the most because they’ll be able to enjoy a constant high utilization of core network bandwidth.

And on the back of an IPTV service, there is the promise of selling other value-added services, mostly associated with interactive TV services like gaming, shopping, etc. But a telco mostly only addresses the local telecommunications market within the borders of its home country. That’s why we don’t usually see telcos themselves at an international exhibition like IBC2008, except to promote their satellite services that do cross national borders.

Don’t be surprised if you see large telco suppliers offering IPTV infrastructure to content owners, however. Alcatel-Lucent, for example, is on the exhibitor list. A good IPTV service requires lots of bandwidth into the home, and that means the telcos need to upgrade their “last mile” network infrastructure. Companies like Alcatel-Lucent can provide not only the required last-mile network hardware, but the whole IPTV head-end and middleware infrastructure as well.

Another force propelling IPTV into our living rooms is Microsoft. They hope to earn a royalty for every IPTV set-top box made by providing the operating system and middleware. Such is the power and determination of Microsoft that it broke up the previous IPTV marriages of both the former Alcatel and the former Lucent.

Alcatel, pre-merger, had acquired an IPTV middleware and head-end provider called Thirdspace. The Thirdspace product became the basis of Alcatel’s Open Media Platform (OMP). But while deploying OMP in various countries around the world in 2005, Alcatel announced that Microsoft had become the partner of choice for IPTV middleware.

Similarly, Lucent had been in partnership with Telefónica to deploy the Imagenio IPTV middleware platform. That platform, too, now takes a back seat while the merged Alcatel-Lucent employs the Microsoft platform. Expect a high-profile IPTV display on the Microsoft booth at the exhibition.

In the shadow of Microsoft are smaller, but no less capable, middleware vendors like Orca. With an established successful track record of worldwide IPTV deployments, Orca gains even firmer footing at or near the top of anyone’s IPTV vendor list as France Télécom’s Viaccess bought Orca, the company.

Orca’s new owner represents another vested interest in IPTV, along with notable competitors like NDS and Irdeto, because content delivered over an IPTV network requires strong protection from piracy and other unauthorized access. Expect that NDS, Irdeto, Viaccess and other content protection service providers will be waving the flag for IPTV at the show.

The fourth pillar supporting the IPTV bandwagon is comprised of the IP set-top box manufacturers. Amino Communications is an experienced player in the IPTV game; and they will be keen to show off their new HD-capable IP set-top box. Unlike DVB receivers, an IPTV ‘terminal’ (the word receiver doesn’t quite describe the true function) isn’t likely to be integrated with a display device in the near future. IPTV requires a separate standalone set-top box.

The choice of IP set-top box is one of the most critical decisions for anyone involved in planning or designing an IPTV platform. Expect to see plenty of set-top box manufacturers on the exhibit floor, but don’t expect them to have flashing neon signs over their IP set-top boxes. DVB set-top boxes are still the bread and butter for set-top box manufacturers and, despite the hype surrounding IPTV, it represents just a tiny fraction of all the set-top boxes sold in the world.

While IPTV may still be rare in the average home, it is finding an increasing uptake in a different sector: Private, or closed, distribution of television is the niche that sustains IPTV. Think hotel in-house movie channels. Think aircraft in-flight entertainment systems. Think narrowcasting rather than broadcasting.

Television narrowcasting used to require the booking of dedicated satellite transponder capacity at significant cost. But thanks to IPTV technology, narrowcasting can now be done quite inexpensively over the Internet. Look for vendors like Digital Rapids to show you a quite simple and low-cost platform for streaming any form of video over IP.

Companies like Digital Rapids, and products similar to theirs, will sustain the interest in IPTV because it brings IPTV to the masses. You and I can start an IPTV service from home, assuming we have content of some kind. Private narrowcast television, like a real-time streaming version of YouTube, has a much lower cost of entry than that for a city-wide consumer market broadcast television service.

So while walking the aisles of IBC2008, in between bumping into old industry acquaintances, don’t ignore those small booths tucked away behind the larger ones. In the world of IPTV some of the most interesting products are found among the smaller exhibitors.