By Ralph Bachofen
Internet Protocol Television seems to be the new buzzword in the industry. Telcos and broadcasters are looking at how they can leverage this technology to their advantage. We take a look at this technology and what it will bring to the table.
IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) represents telecommunications companies' answer to the inroads that cable operators have made into the traditional telephone business. Regional phone companies are being pressured financially by services introduced by new rivals within the cable industry, which now offer consumers not only broadband Internet access, but also packaged voice calling plans as part of "triple play" services.
Telcos have upgraded and continue to improve their networks, some even running fibre directly to the consumer's door. This is done to enhance their own service offering and enable delivery of triple play services - voice, video, and data - in the form of high-speed Internet access, hundreds of TV channels, and phone packages.
Only four operators in three countries in the MENA region offer commercial IPTV services: these are the UAE, Qatar and Morocco. Reportedly, there are plans by operators in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt to launch IPTV in 2008 - Arab Advisors Group
The migration to IP-based technology promises a great deal of flexibility and creativity in the delivery of audio, video, and data to consumers' homes and even to their personal mobile devices. The IPTV model delivers digital television services, sent in the form of IP packets, to subscribers over a broadband network.
A set-top box or receiver re-assembles these packets to provide TV channels in a very efficient manner. As a two-way connection, IPTV enables the launch of innovative interactive services such as video-on-demand (VOD), web browsing, and e-mail and messaging services. Reliance on IP-based technology also can support more convenient access to media and information.
Future IPTV services will include advanced advertising services - targeted by neighborhood, household, or individual; interactive advertising; as-watched reports to advertisers; and advertising in the electronic program guide (EPG), side-bars, etc.
They also will incorporate games and pictures, consumer-originated content, and other interactive features. Because it uses a worldwide standard for the exchange of data among networked devices, IPTV offers the possibility of bringing more variety, portability, and customisation to the viewing experience.
Along with all of this new functionality comes the opportunity to preserve or increase revenues, a necessity for telcos as their share of the voice market erodes. Critical to successful delivery of IPTV service, however, is quality assurance, particularly as IPTV service providers move from trials and early commercial implementation to full-scale deployments.
The number of IPTV subscribers has been growing steadily, by several million a year over 2005 and 2006 and increasing at such a rate that projections are as high as 63 million subscribers worldwide by 2010. For this market growth to yield real profits for IPTV providers, the adoption of comprehensive IPTV standards is a must.
The current model of IPTV delivery depends largely on proprietary components supplied by the service provider, which results in higher adoption costs for both the provider and consumer while reducing choice and convenience for the consumer.
Furthermore, this proprietary environment adds to the cost of managing and monitoring the quality of the services being provided to customers.
In the high-level view of the current IPTV system architecture, the content providers feed the service providers, which in turn deliver service to the IPTV consumers via IPTV network providers.
Standardisation of interfaces between the service provider and consumer and between the network provider and consumer is key to cost-effective service management and monitoring using readily available, off-the-shelf systems. IPTV standards also will make it possible for telcos and cable providers to work with interoperable quality-monitoring equipment, thus reducing both the cost and complexity of monitoring throughout the delivery chain.
Most content delivered via IPTV services will initially come from well-established terrestrial and cable network sources.
Though their business models compete, their shared dependence on the same content will require telcos and broadcasters to cooperate in creating effective business and technical relationships.
The end-to-end use and verification of advertising is one area in which the use of a single monitoring technology can provide cost and operations benefits for both players. Likewise, this arrangement would simplify billing for interactive content consumption.
There is a direct connection linking monitoring capabilities and the revenues that can be drawn from IPTV services. For example, consumer electronics manufacturers could in the future introduce retail TV sets capable of carrying ads in their EPG displays and/or allowing viewer-level ad targeting by splicing ads into the broadcast stream in real-time.
In this model, the portion of revenues distributed to the manufacturer offsets the higher manufacturing cost of a TV set that includes these features and the relatively low pricing that would be required to entice consumers to buy a TV set with advertising in the EPG.
The viability of these types of advertising tools - and their profitability - require that the TV set be able to report back which ads have been displayed.
This is a valid model if accurate metadata can be delivered to and processed by non-proprietary receivers. The ability to perform reliable ad verification thus depends on uniform and easily measured standards for delivery of metadata along with programming content and scheduling information.
Targeted advertising also demands delivery of metadata and content that can be processed accurately by the IPTV receiver, and standards will enable telcos to take advantage of monitoring technologies to ensure this takes place.
The continued development of IPTV standards will enable IPTV providers to deploy the same proven service monitoring systems already in use within the over-the-air (OTA) and cable TV industries.
Much as DVB, ATSC, and SCTE standards specify broadcast stream structures and detail recommended practices for validation, so too will IPTV standards improve the effectiveness of IPTV monitoring.
In countries around the world, groups such as ATIS (North America), ITU, DVB, TTA (Korea), CCSA (China), and ARIB (Japan), among others, are addressing architecture, digital rights management (DRM), quality of service (QoS) measurement, testing and interoperability, metadata, and other elements key to IPTV delivery.
As these groups continue development of a full set of standards, they are creating a framework that in the future will support IPTV on a global scale.
Ralph Bachofen is director of product management & marketing at Triveni Digital.