IPTV prepares for prime time

Carriers such as AT&T are ready to roll out services, but new technologies will be needed to increase network capacity.

It's show time for IPTV, as telecommunications companies such as AT&T prepare to roll out television services.

While the industry has been hyping IPTV for years, the technology will soon get its prime-time debut in the U.S. when AT&T, the country's largest phone company, moves from the experimentation phase of its Project Lightspeed and U-verse TV service to commercial deployment of the service later this summer.

"IPTV is moving out of trials, and the basic viability of the technology has been proven," said Rick Thompson, senior analyst at Heavy Reading. "Now it's time to look at how well the service is performing and enabling new features to enhance the quality of the services."

AT&T has been testing its IPTV service in San Antonio for several months, and it expects to deploy the service to more cities in Texas later this summer, with further deployments planned for 2006 and 2007. The company has said that it plans to spend $4.6 billion through 2008 to bring television and high-speed Internet services to almost 19 million homes.

Whether AT&T succeeds in the TV market hinges on several factors, including how well it evolves its technology so it can offer customers new interactive experiences. More than 500 software and equipment makers will be on hand this week in Chicago at the Telecommunications Association's GlobalComm trade show to demonstrate the latest technology that will help AT&T and other carriers around the world make IPTV a truly competitive service.

Initially, most of the companies supplying gear and services have focused on simply getting the technology to work. As a result, early deployments, including AT&T's, will look very much like what's already available from cable and satellite operators today. Early on, the battle for new customers will be won based on pricing. But in the long run, IPTV providers need to convince customers that they offer features that are different from what's already available from the traditional television providers.

"Once the networks are rolled out and people see they work, the question becomes how will the phone companies compete," said Adi Kishore, director of the media team for the Yankee Group. "They are coming into many markets as the third or fourth or sometimes even the fifth video provider. It's a stiff challenge, and they'll need to show some kind of differentiation."

Microsoft, which is providing technology for AT&T's network, as well as for several other phone companies around the world, will be demonstrating some of its advanced features, like displaying multiple pictures within a picture and instant channel change. The software is also designed to integrate with other IP-based services, like voice over Internet Protocol and Internet data surfing.

Some of the advanced features may not be available right away when IPTV services debut, but that's not a big deal, according to Kishore, who says it will take a while for people to appreciate the new offerings.

"In the beginning, 80 percent of the business will be decided on pricing, packaging and marketing, rather than on the new whiz-bang technology that IPTV delivers," he said. "But integrating Internet content and providing new ways of viewing content could appeal to some people frustrated with what's currently on TV."

The HD factor
That said, technology will be a big factor in enabling IPTV networks to keep up with new broadcast trends. One of the biggest challenges for AT&T and other carriers will be having enough bandwidth available to deliver high-definition channels. HDTV eats up big chunks of bandwidth. Using today's most common compression codec, MPEG-2, a single high-definition channel eats up about 20Mbps of bandwidth.

"Using MPEG-2 for HDTV pretty much blows all of AT&T's bandwidth budget," said Heavy Reading's Thompson. "And that's just for one channel. Most households in the U.S. have multiple TVs."

Today, only about 15 percent to 20 percent of households in the United States have HD-ready television sets. But considering that on average people buy new TVs every four years, it's likely that this figure will increase dramatically in the near future. What is also expected to increase is the number of homes that will have multiple HDTVs, said Kishore.

The challenge for carriers is finding enough bandwidth on their network to deliver not just one but multiple HD channels into a single home. Unlike Verizon Communications, which is spending billions of dollars to build a fiber network directly to people's houses, AT&T has only extended its fiber into neighborhoods. It is using existing copper DSL infrastructure to deliver IPTV the rest of the way into homes.

While Verizon's network is costing about five times more to build than AT&T's, it will offer almost limitless bandwidth. AT&T's network, on the other hand will initially offer about 15Mbps to 20Mbps. And even though advances in DSL technology will allow it to push up these speeds, it will always be more limited than Verizon's fiber network.

"Verizon is using a big pipe to deliver service," said Matthew Flanigan, president of the Telecommunications Industry Association. "But AT&T has to be a bit more clever in how it uses technology, since the pipe it's using isn't ever going to be as fat. This is where companies like Microsoft, Alcatel and Cisco Systems can help deliver more content through skinnier pipes."

One of the first enhancements that will help AT&T deliver HDTV is a new compression codec known as MPEG-4, which gets bandwidth usage for the high-definition signals down to about 8Mbps per channel.

MPEG-4 technology is available today, and many vendors will be showing off their gear at the GlobalComm show. Tut Systems, for instance, will launch a MPEG-4 transcoder for high-definition content, which converts signals from the MPEG-2 standard in real time. Optibase, a provider of advanced digital video products, will demonstrate its live encoding of MPEG-4 high-definition technology, as well.

But Kishore said that AT&T and other IPTV providers will need to do more than just rely on MPEG-4 compression technology. Those companies may have to look at technologies such as channel bonding, which combines multiple downstream channels to increase the overall throughput that can be received in the home. The technology, which is used in cable networks, has the potential to more than quadruple currently available speeds.

"HDTV may not be a big concern for AT&T right now," said Kishore. "But it will definitely need to do something to increase bandwidth and use the bandwidth it has more efficiently. And I don't see MPEG-4 being enough."

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