For the consumer, IPTV is the holy grail of entertainment: Imagine watching your favorite broadcasts delivered to your television set whenever you want, regardless of the market you are in, or being able make and take phone calls, or send and receive text messages or voice mails while watching TV.
This combination of control of media content and access to hip, multimedia technologies is closer than we might imagine. Already, service providers are catering to consumers appetites for more control of content by offering more personalized services through triple play offerings. Most carriers have the network capacity to handle voice and data, but its the third component of triple play video or IPTV that is expected to be the killer application driving the widespread adoption of triple play services. It is also the one that presents the biggest challenge for telcos.
The Battle for the Consumer Begins
Today, service providers operating in the worlds most competitive broadband markets are striving toward an ambitious, yet reachable, goal: They all want to offer triple play services to their customers over a single, packetized network infrastructure. Triple play promises to significantly reduce costs by enabling carriers to offer all these services via a single infrastructure. More importantly, telcos are hoping that the addition of IPTV will help replace their fading voice businesses with a growth business that will help them compete more effectively with cable operators for subscribers.
Recent announcements to offer new video on demand (VoD) services from some of the biggest TV networks and cable operators, including Disney, NBC Universal, and Comcast, demonstrate that consumers want and will spend their dollars on VoD services. In fact, analysts are predicting that, in the next five years, we will see a tremendous increase in the uptake of VoD services. According to research from analyst firm Informa Media and Telecoms, by the end of the decade, one third of the worlds TV viewing households will be using VoD services. It also is predicted that cable companies will benefit most from this trend. This is not good news for the telcos and they are counting on IPTV to give them the edge in the fierce race for consumer spending on bundled services.
The promise of IPTV is that it will enable carriers to deliver TV, video signals, or other multimedia services to the home via a consumers existing broadband connection. Benefits to the consumer include integrated features, such as the ability to personalize and interact with their video content in new ways. For example, users will be able to listen to their voice mail from their TV directory, or order a pizza from their TV before their HD movie begins.
IPTV is already a multi-billion dollar trend dominating the telecommunications industry. The projections are that $4 to $6 billion will be spent in this market by telcos annually for the next five years. Telcos know IPTV has the potential to give them the advantage in the race against cable operators; however, to deliver IPTV services, their networks must be upgraded to support this new world of on demand, integrated communications.
With so many telcos and cable operators vying for position in this hot sector of telecom, and with IPTV-mania sweeping the networking landscape, there is much confusion about how to deliver these kinds of revolutionary new services. Many vendors are talking about a complex set of systems that will cost billions of dollars to acquire. However, the overall solution can be cost-effectively subdivided into four key categories:
Video Head end,
The Video Head End
The IPTV head end is where content (such as television channels or movies) is received and prepared for transmission across the operators private IP network. Perhaps the most complex piece is simply capturing this content, as it can come from analog satellites, digital satellites, or antennas, and can be standard definition, high definition, or music. Once formatted, the operator will add local commercials and FCC-mandated emergency alert information. The Conditional Access (CA) system then encrypts the signal to prevent service theft or unauthorized copying. Finally, the signal is placed onto the network for delivery to the subscriber. All of this happens under the control of network middleware, which also controls what the electronic program guide (EPG) displays, thereby controlling access to content and services.
The Network Backbone
The network backbone is often overlooked for enabling IPTV services. However, as many of todays provider backbones will not be able to handle the bandwidth required to offer even basic IPTV services, it is the most critical component service providers need to address. Consider a television service of 100 standard definition television (SDTV) channels using MPEG2, which is the existing standard for digital television. Since each channel requires roughly four Mbps of throughput, the backbone must support a total of 400 Mbps. This is certainly within reach for many existing backbones. Video, however, drastically changes the bandwidth requirements in a service providers network backbone. IPTV essentially requires giving each subscriber a personal television channel of four Mbps. For a network of 10,000 subscribers, this means the backbone must now support 40 Gbps. As IPTV grows in use and popularity, service providers will need to address the need for increased capacity in their network backbones by
expanding their optical infrastructure, as well as by building out local video office locations in major metropolitan areas.
The Access Network
The most basic decision about the access network is determining how much of the existing copper or DSL loop can be used. The general guideline for offering IPTV service is the network must support at least 20 Mbps of throughput for the long term viability of a service offering that includes HDTV service. But, whatever the service providers target for access bandwidth, DSL throughput is highly dependent upon the length of the local loop. Often fiber must be run to the outside plant to reduce the length of the copper run.
For new construction or overbuilding, fiber is often deployed right to the subscribers premises, since laying fiber costs about the same as running copper. In this case, Passive Optical Networks (PON) are most commonly used to support the desired throughput. In denser areas requiring higher bandwidth, Ethernet may be a better solution.
This is where the magic happens for consumers. But, before consumers get to watch their favorite TV show on demand, telcos must uncover a cost-effective way to distribute the new IPTV signal to their TV sets. First, each consumer site requires a demarcation device, such as a DSL modem or Optical Network Unit (ONU).
There are many ways to connect this demarcation device to the set-top box, but Ethernet-capable wiring is the most common. However, Ethernet cannot run on most existing in-home telephone wiring systems, so telcos must run new wires and, typically, absorb this extra cost. Third-party devices, however, will allow Ethernet to run on existing coax cables and enable the re-use of existing television wiring.
There are also many features available on set-top boxes. The lowest cost equipment supports standard definition television services. Higher-end units support high definition television, integrated hard disks for recording programs, digital audio outputs for connecting to the home audio system, Web browsers, USB ports, and many other options. Offering one set-top box is not sufficient for all subscribers. On the other hand, offering too many alternatives drives up testing and support costs, so a balance is necessary.
Evolving To IMS
A key component to the access network for IPTV is IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) capabilities. Though the first goal for service providers is to provide advanced services to the home, their ultimate goal is to be able to deliver those same services to end users on any device, across any broadband connection, wireless or wireline, wherever they happen to be. To realize true service and application ubiquity, though, todays disparate access networks must be linked together. Even with the convergence of voice, video, and data services, management systems and subscriber data remain segregated and service-specific. By deploying an IMS network architecture, service providers will be able to link these disconnected facets.
IMS provides a common SIP session control mechanism, enabling subscriber registration from home or visited access networks, as well as a centralized subscriber database that securely manages subscriber profiles and provides a single point for user authentication. By decoupling the subscriber from specific access networks and specific device types, and by consolidating subscriber management and authentication/authorization, IMS creates an opportunity for IPTV services and applications to follow end users wherever they go.
In addition to separating services from the underlying network infrastructure, IMS makes it possible for service providers to implement many more new applications much faster, easier, and more cost-effectively. For example, because they are unhooked from networks and devices, service providers can merge multiple applications into exciting new combined services. With IMS, service providers will be able to offer increased content flexibility and targeted content. End users will be able to create and control access to video content, and play or broadcast stored programs (personal videos, pictures, music, and recorded video) no matter where they are located.
As IPTV and IMS (define - news -alerts) mature, IPTV will become even more personalized and better suited for each end users specific preferences, interests, and favorite methods of use. Service providers will be able to deliver and, just as importantly, bill for voice, data, and video services that flow back and forth across previously separate networks, which will be joined by IMS on the control plane. IPTV features, functionality, and applications will be portable across multiple devices and networks. And like many other communications devices, the TV set will be multifunctional.
Challenges & Opportunities
The move to triple play, IPTV, and, eventually, converged IMS networks will dominate all aspects of the telco market place for years to come. The same is true for cable companies vying for competitive advantage and, in time, even wireless service providers. Their very existence depends on the adoption of these on demand services. All the major telco equipment vendors and many new startups are aggressively moving to provide solutions to deliver on the market opportunities created by this demand.
Delivering video is by far the single biggest challenge, due to its complexity and strains on the network. The current telco network is inadequate for delivering video they were originally built for voice, then augmented to support data. But, these network and associated operational challenges present an opportunity for a range of equipment vendors. However, as consumers come to expect more of the on demand world, it will be interesting to watch who will be the first to successfully deliver IPTV services to consumers and, once all is said and done, admire the players left standing. IT
Walt Megura is General Manager Broadband Networks for Nortel. For more information, please visit the company online at www.nortel.com (news - alerts).