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Sat 22 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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IPTV: Massive potential in a diversifying market

Simen Frostad of Bridge Technologies sheds light on new trends in IPTV and where it’s headed in the near future.

Simen Frostad of Bridge Technologies sheds light on new trends in IPTV and where it’s headed in the near future.

Around eight years ago, the first commercial high-bandwidth broadcast IPTV applications demonstrated that IP could be a viable alternative to conventional methods of delivering television content to an audience.

FastWeb in Italy, PCWW in Hong Kong, and Lyse in Scandinavia were the first IPTV delivery applications where from the headend all the distribution into the customer premises was on IP. And at around the same time, the pioneering IP contribution project went live, providing horseracing coverage from racecourses to the distribution headend, from where it was broadcast across Scandinavia.

Although viewers will spend hours watching low-quality free content, when they switch to a paid TV service, they will expect to see perfect quality, which is why monitoring is vital throughout the IPTV chain to ensure that customer viewing meets expected standards.

So both in contribution (getting the images and sound from the camera to the headend), and in distribution (getting the programming from the headend to the viewer), the validity of television over IP had been proven as early as 2001. So where are we now?

It's important to see IPTV in the context of the triple play (services delivering TV, data and telephony as part of the same package through the same infrastructure), and assess it against other technologies vying for a share of the same audience. Those pioneering services were delivering triple play, as were narrowcasting services such as those at Dubai Marina. As a competitor to broadcasting via cable, DTT and satellite, how is IPTV progressing?

So far, growth in IPTV has been relatively steady but there are now predictions for a subscriber base of close to 100 million by 2012. The promise of IPTV resides in its rich interactivity: which means that providers can build on top of the product a lot of new services that will be able to expand the revenue from each subscriber.

But since 2001, broadcasters of all kinds, whether using cable, DTT or satellite, have had to respond to the rise of internet based delivery, spearheaded by services such as YouTube and iTunes. These provide the sort of interactivity and ability to watch what you want, when you want, that IPTV has only partially delivered to date.

IPTV has grown out of a closed-system approach, where providers linked subscribers (who were often themselves closed communities such as hotels) to their own services on an exclusive basis. In 2008, the biggest message for IPTV vendors and operators and those who are entering the market is that openness is the key to success: if they are not operating services that directly communicate with the net and allow third parties into their normally closed-loop systems, they will almost certainly fail.

Services on the net that are user-driven, free of charge and very attractive to consumers are expanding rapidly, and IPTV providers need to embrace them in order to enrich their product. With both Sony and Panasonic moving to implement the ability to play YouTube videos directly in their TV sets the implications should be clear to everyone.

Given the right open approach though, IPTV offers enormous potential. To understand why, a brief outline of the topology may be useful. An IPTV distribution system comprises the super headend, typically receiving content via satellite, and passing it through an ultra high speed optical infrastructure to the core network, where it is distributed to the regional networks (also using optical), which are also known as metro networks, since they are typically city-wide. From there, signals are distributed to the access-level networks, which may be based on individual buildings.

Access networks are usually based on copper cabling, still popular because it's not necessary to lay any new cabling to provide services to the subscribers. The second technology that is gaining ground rapidly is fibre to the home. A physical fibre optic conduit to the home is pretty future proof and provides the ability to deliver very high bandwidth into the customer premises.

This is a large growth area and there is a strong commercial inducement to growth: if you link the customer to the fibre network, you ‘own' the customer. So these are the two approaches: copper has a very low capital expense but is more costly to operate. Fibre is expensive to install, but operational costs are very low.

This question of cabling brings us to the sharp end of the competition in the IPTV marketplace. Telcos are competing with cable operators because the cable companies are increasingly moving into triple play, and using hybrid systems that enable them to operate with both digital cable and IPTV in the same infrastructure.

Without providing the TV and data, the telcos are at risk of losing telephone customers.This is one of the biggest trends we are seeing: the division lines between IPTV and cable are becoming much less distinct. To the customer, the difference between a hybrid cable service and a pure IPTV service is hardly noticeable.

There are close to 600 million households with cable, and around 100 million of these have digital cable. There is very great potential for growth in the digital cable market. In IPTV sphere there are currently around 15 million subscribers and even though growth is very rapid, we are still looking at projections of around 100 million subscribers by 2012, while we will probably see between 200 and 400 million Digital cable subscribers by then.

So what is the ultimate growth potential for IPTV? Again, the delivery infrastructure holds the key. There is a limit on how far services can be developed with the cable network: getting the big bandwidth to the customer's home on coaxial cable poses problems, and customers are demanding more bandwidth year by year, especially with the rise of HD services.

This puts a strain on the cable networks because cable operators have to make continued extra investment to expand the coaxial infrastructure to accommodate an ever-rising demand for bandwidth.

By contrast, if the customer has a fibre link, providers can build services without any concerns about bandwidth. In the end, the only technology that will indefinitely cater to future demands is fibre.

But how does the availability of net based content - much of which is of very low quality - affect viewers' perceptions of the services they pay for? For IPTV operators, quality becomes a crucial selling point.

Viewers will happily spend hours watching low quality free content, and it may be more what they want to watch than what's on conventional TV, but because it's free, they will tolerate poor-quality images, dropouts, bad audio sync, and playback interruptions.

When those same viewers switch to their paid TV services, they expect to see perfect quality, and providers have to deliver this, or lose out. Because of the complexity of the IPTV delivery chain, quality monitoring is vital throughout the chain in order to ensure that every aspect of the customer's viewing and interactivity experience functions to expected standards.

IP is a beautiful technology, but it's organic and multi-layered. You need to monitor the services running on top of IP more carefully than with traditional distribution forms. It's one of the prices you have to pay for the diversity of the IP platform.

Simen Frostad is chairman of Bridge Technologies.

Bridge emerges a star at IBC '08

Bridge Technology won the 2008 STAR award at the IBC convention this year for its new microVB IPTV monitoring and analysis system. The microVB is said to be a breakthrough in miniaturised remote monitoring and analysis for IPTV applications. With the microVB system, IPTV operators can for the first time gather complete and accurate data about the performance at the viewers' set-top box, using a cost-effective user-installed monitoring device.

Enabling deep packet inspection without requiring a technician to visit the customer's home to install the device or diagnose problems, the microVB is robust and small enough to be delivered to the customer by mail. Once installed, it automatically locates an appropriate server and starts monitoring the quality of the signal received by the set-top box.

The microVB reports the QoE parameters, allowing remote monitoring and analytics for advanced trouble shooting. Potential savings to the IPTV operator in transport and technician costs are said to be significant.