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November 2006, Volume 9/ Number 11

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Enhancing IPTV QoE Without Breaking the Bank

By Brian Mahony

 


I think it was Friday night �date-night� about three years ago that I first starting thinking about TV quality of experience (QoE). Trust me, that was not what I wanted to be thinking about. As a road warrior like many of you, �date night� was a chance for me and my wife Kirsten to catch up and relax, with the kids in bed and no distractions. Usually we browsed the movie channels and, if nothing looked good, there we went with DirectTV�s VoD service. Well, as Murphy�s Law would have it, foul weather more often than not seemed to mar the picture quality with the blocking problems that are typical of �rain fade.� Though I am sure it helped my marriage (we had to choose a game to play or gasp! actually talk to each other), I could have written a new coffee table book on ways to curse out the TV.

In frustration, I switched to Comcast (News - Alert) Cable for a �double play� solution of broadband Internet and digital TV, but my TV QoE problems only followed me there. Channel change speed was horrible and in the time it took for me to navigate 100 channels on the electronic program guide (EPG) I could have walked to the kitchen, made a ham and cheese sandwich, hugged the kids, and returned to the living room without breaking a sweat. It made me long for the days when I only had to worry about TV static �snow� and tuning the rabbit ears to ju-u-u-u-st the right angle (at least I felt I had some control).

With IPTV, the stakes for QoE are raised ten-fold. The level of interactivity, service blending, and sheer volume of content options increase the potential to excite and frustrate. So in these few brief paragraphs I would like to highlight the key QoE parameters the IPTV industry should be thinking about.






First, I would like to expand the industry definition of IPTV subscriber �quality of experience.� The term is built upon a similar networking concept called Quality of Service (QoS), which is very much a technical term referring to things like packet loss, jitter, delay and other parameters that many times get written into service level agreements (SLAs) between Internet service providers and their enterprise customers. The TV/video industry quickly understood that these parameters alone did not ensure that what subscribers actually saw on their TVs measured up to quality standards of viewing. That�s why they came up with ways to track the quality of the video subscribers saw on their screens (using Mean Opinion Scores or �MOS� ratings), and then implemented probes in the delivery chain from the head-end to the set-top box (STB) to locate any problems and bottlenecks (such as a flaky decoder chip or bad Ethernet port on the STB).

So as far as QoE is concerned, video quality is indeed a starting point. But I would also like to add other variables such as how intuitive the navigation of the EPG is, EPG time-to-scroll, including vertically cell-to-cell, page-to-page, the fast scroll of many channels, and horizontally (temporal scan of the same channel), how quickly you can change channels, how quickly you can identify what you want to watch and actually watch it (�time to watch�), content search speed, and the balance between providing enough information on the user guide and too much information (which becomes even more important on multiple-line HD EPGs).

When it comes to IPTV, it is important to remember that most operators are not implementing IPTV in a vacuum, but are deploying combinational triple play (TV plus Internet and VoIP) and quad play (add mobility) services. So another key QoE parameter is how well these combinational services are blended together. For example, do I have to go through several clicks and a separate �Communications� tab on the user guide or is it easy to send and receive calls or initiate IM chats? In this world of device intelligence and personal style, how smart is the IPTV service to track my preferences and what options do I have to customize the look and feel of my interfaces (called �skins�) and apply parental controls to filter what my kids are watching?

So far, I have seen few IPTV solutions that combine the intuitive, customizable, graphically rich user interface that subscribers have come to expect with the fast performance they demand. Those that try usually fall down on one end of the spectrum or the other, or they are cost-prohibitive and don�t scale technically or financially. For example, IPTV solutions that use a browser-only approach (appropriate for some applications such as VoD), may allow for rich and customizable interfaces, but their performance and scalability are lacking and leave subscribers waiting far too long to refresh the browser screen with each click of the remote control. Proprietary IPTV solutions (you know who I am talking about) may be a little faster, but they lack the openness and flexibility operators are looking for. Worse, they often take technical shortcuts, such as requiring three video streams to ensure fast channel change speed (the up and down channel is always a click away) and require expensive, bloated, PC-like STBs that don�t scale and require a plethora of processing power and servers in the back office.

There is a better way. One that combines open Web development tools for rich, customizable interfaces with a fast and cost-effective STB and IPTV component ecosystem. It is what can loosely be called a �data-driven IPTV architecture� and it combines the best of open development frameworks and the performance one would expect from embedded C code. What�s more, this approach, now seriously being looked at by some of the leading IPTV vendors and service providers in the world, does not break the bank because it can be run on low- to middle-end STBs and requires far less network bandwidth for EPG population than first generation technologies. And best of all for subscribers, this �data-driven architecture� allows service providers the tools to develop the most user-friendly QoE available. The end result is a QoE/TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) ratio that makes both IPTV subscribers and operators smile.

In the grand scheme of things, the IPTV industry is still in its infancy. But for this market to enjoy wide-scale user adoption, it will have to provide a superior QoE and overcome the challenges of earlier TV services. To grow beyond lab trials and pilot deployments, IPTV vendors and service providers alike need to make the right architectural decisions and avoid the mistakes of the past. My date night is counting on it. IT

Brian Mahony is the Vice President of Marketing for Espial (News - Alert) (www.espial.com), a leading IPTV middleware and applications provider. He is a speaker and writer on next-gen services such as IPTV, VoIP, and triple/quad play. He can be contacted at bmahony@espial.com and would welcome feedback and help promoting IPTV architectures with strong QoE/TCO ratios.

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