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November 2006, Volume 9/ Number 11

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IPTV � What�s Not to Love?

By Richard �Zippy� Grigonis

 


Before we examine the current IPTV scene, let us define our terms. IPTV is a high-quality service, the successor to conventional pay-TV. It�s a couch potato�s dream: Fast channel changes, interactivity, services that will catch you by surprise (Caller ID and email notification appearing on your TV screen, multiple picture-in-picture windows, a super-sophisticated program guide, and much more). IPTV is designed to appear on your TV (not your PC) and it�s brought to you by major cable companies, such as Comcast (News - Alert), and equally major telcos, such as AT&T, Verizon, Bell South, Bell Canada, etc.

Internet Video, on the other hand, is any video that travels over the Internet and reaches your PC via your broadband connection. It could be streaming video. It could be something that�s downloaded in its entirety before it�s run. The video is most likely free and may have some kind of advertisement inserted in it. Internet videos generally are more �free form� than IPTV. Some are backyard efforts by teenagers or would-be Hollywood cinematographers. Some are commercial or corporate in nature. Consider the difference between broadcast TV and any other video (including the one taken of your wedding). Now you get the idea.

As cable companies began to offer voice service, telcos were spurred on to invade the cablecos� �turf.� While the giant RBOCs either pretended that nothing was happening or were wringing their hands while looking into the matter, examples of innovation sprouted up in rural areas of the U.S., the same areas where softswitches had first gained a toehold some years ago.

Indeed, there is still much activity occurring in the American hinterlands. Falcon Communications (www.falconcommunications.com) recently announced IP/Complete, an all-in-one, end-to-end IPTV delivery system (�from bird to box�) that targets the 1,500 Tier-2 and Tier-3 telcos found in the rural U.S.






IP/Complete includes 145-channel selection (with 30 HDTV channels coming in 2007), local off-air RF HD Channels (four channels included and standard in the system), a fully secure and encrypted signal throughout, a 5-meter dish (not 3.8), a one-call, full-Falconite service team response on any part of the network, and much more.

Of course, vendors are not just targeting innovative smaller operators, since IPTV trials (and deployments) have been increasing throughout 2006 among larger operators too. Innovation is now occurring everywhere. For example, NDS (www.nds.com) and Jungo (www.jungo.com) have also partnered to offer IPTV operators a new way to store and access content, and to provide distributed DVR (Digital Video Recording) capabilities to their subscribers, based on NDS Synamedia Metro middleware, which is based on NDS� MediaHighway. Jungo�s Open RG residential gateway software has been integrated into Synamedia Metro, resulting in an IPTV solution that doesn�t require a set-top box with an internal disk drive, and so a nearly unlimited amount of content can now be stored and accessed on other home network devices, such as a PC.

The integration has also led to ShareTV � a peer-to-peer content sharing solution that allows users on the network operators� network to share encrypted content. A subscriber who missed an episode of his or her favorite series and forgot to record could now request the episode from other subscribers using the Share TV facility.

IPTV and IMS

Few network operators, be they cable or telco, will solely deliver IPTV. Rather, it�s expected that triple-play and then quad-play services bundles will become the norm, all of which will be supported by IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem (News - Alert)) that will serve as a common service architecture for both wireline and wireless operators.

At IntelliNet Technologies (www.intellinet-tech.com), Arun Handa, CTO, says: �IntelliNet has helped its customers to accelerate revenues in new network domains with a multiservice signaling platform and convergence elements. These days, if IMS isn�t in your strategy then there�s something wrong � how can you be in the telecom industry? IntelliNet has been around since 1992. We�ve focused on the very niche area of signaling and how it enables all the services that exist in the core nework. We�ve enabled various platforms and applications in the core network space. That work has spanned both traditional and converged networks. From this we can see that IMS is indeed becoming the platform of choice for the next-generation network. We�ve made a smooth transition to developing IMS solutions.�

Handa continues: �If someone were to ask me, �What is the next killer app?� I would say that it will be video-based, and that precisely fits into one of the original objectives of IMS, to enable multimedia communications everywhere.�

Dan Wonak, IntelliNet�s Director of Marketing, adds, �Working within the IMS domain, we provide enabling building blocks so providers can put together some of these services. But we�re not �media guys�. When you look at IPTV for example, it involves a lot of streaming. We don�t have anything that does streaming or anything that could take us into the content business. Instead, our objective, especially with IPTV and the work we�re doing in the IMS space, is to see how effectively we can work on making a rich set of features. Basically, of course, IPTV doesn�t need IMS, and IMS doesn�t need IPTV from a technology perspective. If you talk to any contrarian out there, he�ll tell you �What�s the big deal about IMS? I can do IPTV without it.� But when you put the two of them together, you really get a synergistic result greater than the sum of its parts. Both IPTV and IMS by themselves are indeed struggling for a very strong and compelling business case. IPTV doesn�t just relate to streaming video. IPTV is fully functional and available as a service with the guaranteed quality of the service level agreements [SLAs] that are required for video distribution. However, how can we make IPTV more desirable? How can we provide the user with a more multimedia experience? This is where IMS helps.�

Ironically, some of the smaller operators that were so innovative in terms of adopting IPTV may not be so keen on IMS. Brian Naughton, the VP of Architecture and Strategy at Axiom Systems (www.axiomsystems.com) a U.K. company firmly entrenched in the OSS space, says: �Take what some people are calling SDP [Service Delivery Platforms]. IMS is this all-encompassing architecture, it allows you to do multiple access and all that kind of stuff. But the SDP market seems to be, at least in terms of what we�re doing, the common platform for triple-play in smaller carriers. They don�t really care about fixed/ mobile convergent offerings. They just want an application server on which they can deploy new services across an IP network that they own or else a different provider wholesales it through them. IMS right now doesn�t really play in their thinking. It�s just an application architecture to get new services out the door. Mobile operators, however, are getting excited about IMS because it bridges them into fixed communications, and fixed operators are excited because it bridges their services into the mobile world. IMS does have a profit-altering effect on those operators by bringing them into new markets.�

�IMS, in one sense, is a walled garden approach to managing IP services over personal devices,� says Naughton. �It also allows these operators to bridge into either mobile or fixed markets. The promise is that you have an application that abstracts away all of the mess underneath, that allows you to get into the two areas with new services. I haven�t seen that become a reality yet. We�re still seeing people deploy services in �silos�. IPTV application servers are still being deployed in a complete stack on top of an IP network. And we�re still seeing people deploy voice offerings in a complete silo on a softswitch-type architecture, and so on.�

Tests and More Tests

Unlike Internet video aficionados, IPTV subscribers expect high video and audio quality since they�re paying a premium for the service. Ensuring high quality entails sophisticated testing equipment, software and procedures.

At Psytechnics (News - Alert) (www.psytechnics.com), Benjamin Ellis, the Director of Global Marketing, says, �The IPTV market is in a curious stage at the moment. There are two different dimensions to getting it right in terms of quality. The first thing people notice are set-top boxes. The industry is increasingly standards-based � MPEG2, MPEG4, AVC, etc. � but there�s quite a bit of difference in quality between the different devices because quality is not just based on algorithms; it goes all the way down to the chips they use, and how well the software deals with network issues � individual set-top boxes are quite different in that respect. So there�s a considerable amount of vendor testing going on there as IPTV becomes a reality.�

What�s interesting for us and the industry is what you�d might call �in-service quality assurance�,� says Ellis. �The first category is what we call �content assurance.� We tend to use �active testing� or �full reference-based testing� in such cases. We�ll take the video content as it arrives at an IPTV provider � the reference source � and we�ll compare that with the version of the content that ends up streaming out of the IPTV service. Psytechnics has great diagnostics that tell you what the user�s MOS [Mean Opinion Score] should be, which is the classic benchmark for the user�s perception of quality. Our diagnostics can be used either to go back and re-encode that content a different way, or give some insight into whether you�re going to be able to receive that content or not.�

�The second category of in-service quality assurance occurs in the network,� says Ellis. �At the moment in-network testing is a lower priority for operators, but I think it will skyrocket in importance as operators expand from serving a few hundred thousand users to millions, which will load up the networks tremendously, creating traffic congestion. The way you deal with this is with �passive testing�, which means that you�re testing something without comparing the signal to the original material or with no control of the original material. In such cases we use our passive measurement tool, our Psytechnics Video IP monitor or PVI, as our network customers call it. The PVI examines network statistics, plus a lot of other statistics on the IP level, and it predicts with a very high degree of accuracy what the impact will be on the user�s perceived experience. So PVI can sit in the network and report up to us what the quality of experience the user gets based on the condition of the IP video stream.�

�The third category of testing to which the market is evolving, is to conduct measurements inside the set-top box,� says Ellis. �I had previously mentioned vendors that test set-top boxes when they design it and build them. That�s obvious. We�ve helped vendors improve the quality of their set-top boxes. But what�s more interesting for the network operators is that, once they�ve got the set-top boxes deployed out there, they can get quality of experience data right from the set-top boxes themselves, right at the point where the user is watching the TV program.�

Mobile IPTV?

A couple of years ago, Riverbed Technology (www.riverbed.com) and Peribit Networks (now part of Juniper Networks (News - Alert)) became involved in Wide Area Network (WAN) optimization over the fixed line. There were a couple of acquisitions by Cisco and Juniper in this area, driven by the demand for better Quality of Service (QoS) by end users. As video moves into the mobile environment, a similar optimization/infrastructure overhaul is occurring, yielding better performance, a better user experience, and more control by network operators.

For example, take Venturi Wireless (www.venturiwireless.com) and its patented Adaptive Airlink Optimization�, which optimizes TCP applications for efficient transport across wireless networks.

Venturi�s CEO, Bret Sewell, says: �Our technology focuses on mobile broadband services optimization. We have a great interest in the mobile space, and we work closely with mobile operators to take their IP services and optimize them for the mobile experience. The benefits are twofold: First, an enhanced customer or subscriber experience, because our technology allows the subscribers to enjoy faster speeds, quicker download times, more consistent connections and greater reach as they travel through the mobile/cellular network. All of that adds up to a much more enjoyable user experience. Second, it allows operators to make better use of their network infrastructure and the spectrum that they�ve bought, so that they can afford to put more users onto the same network, and, therefore, lower their cost of service delivery.�

"That, in a nutshell, is our value proposition,� says Sewell. �We�ve created an architecture that we call Adaptive Airlink Optimization that uses a couple of different techniques, such as caching and compression, but the �secret sauce� and the core value that we drive is in what we call the VTP, or Venturi Transport Protocol. TCP/IP was not originally designed to travel over wireless networks. Fortunately, Venturi�s VTP enhances the TCP/IP connection over the RF link and gives you the performance benefits I mentioned previously.�

Adds Paul Obsitnik, Venturi�s VP of Marketing and Business Development, �We�ve taken a look at various types of multimedia services, both download and streaming, and we�ve done some interesting things in adapting our solution to, for example, some of the handsets out there. We�re working with Samsung (News - Alert), for example, to drive optimization so �mobile TV� becomes viable. A lot of people now understand the idea, but there are questions about how quickly the adoption will occur. The closer you get to delivering 30 frames per second and a clear image, the more interest you�ll see from the users and, therefore, there will be more revenue for the operators. So, we�re in discussions with various companies in the ecosystem, such as handset OEMs, the operators, and even folks like MobiTV (News - Alert) (www.mobitv.com) and other companies in the multimedia sphere.�

Playing on Both Sides of the Fence

One company involved in IP video distribution that is as comfortable with IPTV as it is with Internet video is thePlatform (www.theplatform.com). Its flagship product, the Platform Media Publishing System� (MPS) is really part content management, part policy management and part publishing engine; it�s designed to handle the workflow of taking content and making it available over broadband or mobile networks. It enables media, entertainment, and enterprise customers to publish digital media over any network and to any device. You can monetize the content through advertising, premium pay services or syndication. Customized feature enhancements and seamless systems integration are made possible by using thePlatform�s web services MPS-SDK.

Recently thePlatform unveiled Connectors. Built on MPS, this scalable Web-based service accelerates the technical execution of digital media licensing agreements, letting content providers reliably publish digital audio and video to broadband media sites and mobile carriers. One of the first companies to adopt Connectors is Airborne Entertainment, a pioneer in producing and publishing original digital media content for the mobile marketplace with over six years of experience. Additionally, thePlatform announced it has built Connectors for such broadband media sites and mobile carriers as Amp�d Mobile, Cingular Wireless, Comcast.net, GoTV, MobiTV, MSN Video, QuickPlay Media, Sprint (News - Alert) TV, and Verizon Wireless.

Ian Blaine, CEO of thePlatform, says, �We have two main constituents as customers: First, there are content owners who want to distribute their material or build their own destination sites for broadband and mobile consumers. Examples include CNBC, Scripts Networks, ABC News, NBC, and companies such as those, that want to extend the �shelf life� of their content via digital distribution.�

�On the other side,� says Blaine, �we power many distributors, be they a telco, MSO, or a portal company that�s engaged in a broadband or consumer play. In that area we have Comcast as a customer for their broadband video services, Verizon (News - Alert) Wireless for their VCast, Telstra in Australia that uses us for a movie download service � Starz uses us for a similar purpose. You can see the breadth of things we can handle and what we have announced with the connector service is a layer on top of MPS that really streamlines distribution for content owners. We�ve gone out to distributors we work with in the market, such as mobile carriers, and we�ve built �connectors� to them so that our content owners can put their content in our system once, and we take care of all of the transformation of the media � so you receive it in the right format and bit-rate. The producer can take care of the metadata, so that the content can be searchable and is formatted in a way that the outlet expects, and you manage the policy, so that you are assigning rules to the content so that when it�s published, it�s done in a way that meets the needs of both the content owner and distributor. So, in effect, for someone such as ESPN, one of our first customers for this, they can put a piece of content in our system, they can choose the distributors they want it to go to, such as Sprint, Cingular (News - Alert), Verizon Wireless, and all they have to do is check off some boxes, and we take care of everything else that is necessary to get that content to those carrier decks.� IT

Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC�s IP Communications Group.

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