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April 2007
Volume 10 / Number 4
Feature Articles

HDTV: Knock ‘em Dead Quality
Entertainment over IP

Service providers must offer this top shelf service. It’s going to cost them if they do, but it may cost them their life if they don’t.

By Taran Singh, Feature Articles

Informa Telecoms & Media forecasts that there will be 151 million HDTV homes worldwide by the end of 2011. That’s more than three times the number that closed out 2006. According to Canalys, global IPTV subscribers hit 3.6 million in 2006, generating almost €1 billion in annualized revenues. No matter how you slice and dice these numbers, that’s a significant amount of “ka-ching” for telecom service providers to dip into. Clearly, the biggest challenge for Telcos when assessing their Triple Play strategy is the “Me Too” factor that is HDTV (High Definition TV). Since HDTV 2007 revenue projections will also likely be through the roof, Telcos know that it’s imperative to have a top shelf IPTV offering. Providing only SD (Standard Definition) will send the audience yawning elsewhere. Moreover, without an HD offering, not only will a Telco be viewed as “second-rate” by consumers but it will even have difficulty retaining its existing subscriber base. It will also be unable to build market share as the subscriber’s succumb to competitors’ offers of more technically advanced better, cheaper and faster services.

Canalys says the top three HDTV providers globally are PCCW at 18.2 percent share, France Telecom with 16.8 percent and Free Telecom with 14 percent, followed up by Telefonica and Fastweb. So far, Europe is leading the way with more HD deployments with customers having 100 Mbps pipes to their service provider network. In the U.S., some service providers are closer to the reality of a successful deployment than others as a result of early strategic decisions to build out their supporting infrastructure. Verizon is walking the walk and has spent $4 billion on infrastructure upgrades building bandwidth and stringing FTTH (Fiber to the Home) to around 200,000 subscribers. In contrast, AT&T’s Q3, 2006 subscriber base was 3,000 and remained there for the balance of the year.

As the U.S. subscriber base grows, it will be delighted to find that upgrading may be as easy as possibly paying an added $15 per Set-top box (STB), if it’s not handed to them for free. This will allow them to enjoy picture quality that is arguably as enticing as 35 mm. movies and with sound quality that rivals today’s Compact Disc to boot. On the other hand, for telecom operators to enjoy the fruits that HDTV offers, they’ll need to resolve challenges that amount to a technological and content provisioning and programming laundry list.

Probably one of the main challenges Telcos are least familiar with involves content licensing and programming. They need to build their content libraries, which means developing relationships with HD content providers and programming concerns to successfully meet, if not exceed, customer demand if they expect to compete with and woo subscribers away from cable operators.

The good news for service providers is that HDTV doesn’t present the emerging standards and infrastructure interoperability issues that pose a technical migraine for other video services deployments. HDTV is based on a relatively mature, stable H.264 standard. The not so good news is that the technology to deliver HDTV is not cheap, so it has to be right. Delivering MPEG-4 is very expensive, and substantial infrastructure costs (CAPEX) must be allocated to allow for back-end issues such as HD content storage, providing the massive bandwidth required to transport this content and most importantly, delivering the goods through the relatively smaller pipes that extend to most subscriber premises.

IDC anticipates that the need to deliver enhanced services over next-generation network architectures will drive worldwide Telco operators to increase service delivery platform (SDP) spending to $2.2 billion in 2011. Getting the infrastructure right involves Telcos purchasing network infrastructure components capable of converting multimedia content for IP distribution that assure efficient, reliable and jitter-free video transport within available bandwidth in compliance with access network and subscriber device tolerances and protocols. Infrastructure such as core and edge routers will also need to provide functionality that controls channel lineups, enhances video quality, and boosts bandwidth efficiency.

Service providers will be looking for a couple of important factors when they make their CPE (customer premise equipment) purchasing decisions as well. The first is flexibility to deliver and decode MPEG-4 (H.264). It may be a grown-up player, but H.264 is still a complex standard, so it’s not as simple as it may sound. The other very important factor to adoption is simply being able to integrate to existing middleware and infrastructure solutions. STB products are projected to be the major CAPEX, so without configurability or the ability to interoperate with other network components a STB offering won’t be adopted, no matter how cheap they are, even if they have the latest technologies. Additionally, initial rollouts must consider HD equipment so that swap-outs are not necessary.

Key CPE manufacturers who stand to gain in the long term because of their market dominance include Motorola and Scientific Atlanta, although they may not necessarily be the speediest at incorporating new technologies into their boxes. Entone and Amino are smaller companies that because of their agility have been quicker to market with HD compatible set top boxes at extremely competitive price points.

Telcos need to test continually throughout their build-out schedule, and well in advance of deployment, to insure that networks that have been built out using a mix of legacy and new infrastructure that will host HD acceptably. An important consideration is that the average house will have three STBs so one has to factor in bandwidth requirements that map to this demand. Bandwidth requirements for SD are about 2–3 Mbps per box as compared to 6–10 Mbps for HD.

A broad outline for a bottom up view of HDTV testing is to begin by creating a suitable framework of network load comprised of HD content because it requires the largest allocation of transport bandwidth, add in SD content, and the other two legs of the triple play offering, voice and high-speed data. Then measure the most basic things from both the customer side as well as at critical points in the network. Move along the chain, from the transport layer up, and ensure that the losses, congestion, delays and jitter are well within defined parameters. There is familiarity with SD parameters, however those parameters become tighter and more stringent for HD. Packet loss on the order of .01-.05 suffered over HD delivers a significantly lower quality picture. One good test among several to test the infrastructure is to run multiple HD streams along a pipe that’s the same size as will be used to connect up to the customer premise to see how much it can handle before choking. This will provide default congestion information for the maximum number of STBs per customer premise installation and possibly prevent inadvertent quality of experience issues that could cause a new subscriber to bail on the service.

Additionally, video quality needs to be looked at carefully to insure there are no encoding errors so that the video itself is well-transported and that the timing is consistent. Check for out of order packets that have the effect of freeze-frames, or buffer delays that result in image distortion. These are all things to assess for SD, however they become glaringly apparent in HD because at any given time two to three times more pixels per second are being transported and delivered to the eye. There are numerous tests that need to be run that extend beyond the scope of this article, but these suggestions provide a few areas to get started with that may then be expanded upon depending on specific network requirements.

Ideally, Telcos need to use a scalable test and measurement tool that not only provides for thorough testing of infrastructure features available today but is also able to test new technologies and features that will be available in next-generation network infrastructure and equipment products. For example, developing a strong test program using a tool that can emulate the delivery and reception of native MPEG-4/H.264 transport video to test HD and Video on Demand platforms, coupled with HD content streaming, stream analysis and STB emulation will go a long way toward speeding up a successful Triple Play deployment that can easily and reliably support the demands that HDTV will make on the network.

The business proposition that an increasing market of almost 38 million HDTV homes worldwide over the next four to five years makes for telecom operators is very attractive, especially when not jumping on the HDTV revenue bandwagon spells certain doom.

Service providers have their very continued existence at stake in a “sink or swim” situation that requires significant CAPEX to be successful. The bottom line is that while HDTV does present some challenges, those challenges aren’t nearly as formidable as they could be. With some intelligent, strategic infrastructure purchases and a comprehensive, methodical test plan in place, Telcos stand to reap their piece of the HDTV revenue pie and live to tell about it.

Taran Singh is Product Manager for Video and Triple Play at IXIA.

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