IPTV has already moved beyond the “lab trial” stage to very large deployments. On the features/functionality front, while many operators are still challenged with getting a basic broadcast-emulation TV service deployed, others are finding ways to move beyond these less sophisticated offerings. Increasingly, this differentiation involves separating the time content is initially offered to subscribers from the time they actually want to watch the content.
One option is DVR, which itself comes in two varieties: CPE-based DVR which involves a hard-drive on the STB, or network-DVR (N-DVR) which utilizes resources maintained by the service provider. In both scenarios, the benefits of DVR is it gives the most flexibility to subscribers to choose what content they want to record, schedule repeat recordings, and view whenever they want. It has the potential for a high degree of personalization and integration with mixed media applications including VoD, internet TV, and personal photo and video storage. For the CPE-based variety it also has the advantage of adding cost burden to only those subscribers willing to pay for it (by obtaining an upgraded STB). Finally, CPE-based DVR is based on a business model that has become accepted in part because it provides reasonable security to content providers (however, some N-DVR deployments have been held up due to regulation and litigation).
On the downside for DVR, it tends to be more of a “lean forward” experience because the overall user experience is quite sophisticated, which, without an intuitive user interface, can also mean complex and confusing. Some users get frustrated with having too many options and having to set up recordings time and again. For this reason some operators are rolling out simpler applications such as “Start Over TV”, which allows you to go back to the beginning of a show if you missed it, making it easier for less sophisticated users to experience the benefits of powerful DVR technology.
Another challenge with CPE-based DVR is it introduces a fail point in an already difficult maintenance issue, the hard drive. Hard drives are always weak points in any electronic device and drive up mean-time-between-failure (MBTF) metrics and overall support costs.
While DVR and related applications will continue to gather steam, some operators are deploying a different architecture in parallel or in place of DVR. This option for flexible content viewing is time-shifted TV. Time-shift TV (TSTV) lets you watch content from a video on demand list pre-determined by the service provider. It could include all the most popular shows for the past 7 days for example. As an application similar to VoD, it can be a much simpler and more familiar user interface, leading to more of a “lean back” experience. It also can be enabled on a lower cost STB, since the system taxes network resources of the service provider shared across many subscribers rather than adding expensive hard drives to each STB. Finally, the business model for TSTV is flexible and supports both subscription and, like VoD, per transaction billing.
Of course, for every application there is always a down-side. For TSTV, it has to do with the fact that the subscriber has less flexibility than DVR, since the operator decides what content is available to them. This can be a problem for subscribers who like DVR precisely because of its ability to record special interest content that only few may like, such as a special on the origins of Atlantis. Also, while the initial costs of the CPE may be lower, the operator now has an increased burden to purchase network storage equipment and must determine the right algorithm to balance costs to manage the higher transaction load from all the TSTV unicast video traffic.
At the end of the day, we see operators considering both approaches to flexible content viewing, and will decide based on costs, user preferences, and in some cases regulation, which approach is best for them.