Phone companies hear call of the TV

Supercomm 2005 offers a look at an array of new products intended to help spruce up planned TV services.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
6 min read
CHICAGO--The future of the telephone industry may be in television.

At Supercomm 2005, a huge telephone trade show taking place here through Thursday, executives from local phone giants Verizon Communications, Qwest Communications International, SBC Communications and BellSouth will get a look at an array of new products intended to help them spruce up planned TV services.

Ranging from breakthroughs in network-traffic management that use faster DSL (digital subscriber line) technology to new additions to software from Microsoft that blends television with the Internet Protocol, the new services should help the Bells sell more interactive TV services.

VoIP software has allowed a diverse group of new competitors to get into the local and long-distance phone business.

While there certainly are other pressing industry concerns?-namely hackers setting their sights on Internet phone calls and the re-emergence of WiMax, a troubled but promising long-range wireless technology--nothing seems as important to the Baby Bells and the rest of the phone industry as tuning into TV services.

With good reason. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software, which turns any Internet connection into a home phone line, has allowed a diverse group of new competitors such as Sony Electronics and America Online to get into the local and long-distance phone business.

An estimated 3 million to 5 million homes now subscribe to VoIP services globally. U.S. cable operators have benefited the most from VoIP, and are now winning tens of thousands of new phone customers a week with an inexpensive, triple-play bundle of broadband, TV programming plus local and long distance phone services. Traditional phone services can be three times as expensive as VoIP.

That has put pressure on the Bells to improve their own video capabilities in order to turn the tables on their new competitors. "In today's rapidly converging communications market, carriers must offer video along with their other services," said John Abel, senior vice president of the United States Telecommunications Association (USTA), an influential telephone industry lobbying group.

Adding TV service to a telecommunications network is huge, and equipment makers and software developers are rushing to make the IPTV dream a reality.

Today, most phone companies rely on partnerships with satellite TV companies to provide the video portion of their own triple-play offerings. Most believe they need to do more. SBC is spending roughly $4 billion over the next two years to upgrade its network to support IPTV. It plans to use the existing copper lines that already go into homes and businesses. And Verizon is spending billions to go directly into homes and businesses with its fiber network, which it plans to eventually use for interactive IPTV.

Adding TV service to a telecommunications network is huge, and equipment makers and software developers are rushing to introduce new products to help the phone companies make the IPTV dream a reality.

When it comes to IPTV software, Microsoft is way ahead of the pack with its IPTV software suite, which provides everything a carrier needs to get an IPTV network up and running. Telephone companies in the United States, such as SBC and BellSouth, along with carriers overseas such as Swisscom have been working with the company to develop IPTV for their networks. Though a recent report by The Register intimated that problems with Microsoft's software has caused delays in the roll out of new services. Microsoft, which plans to show off its technology at the show, says these claims are unfounded.

"We are right on schedule to deliver our software by this fall," said Ed Graczyk, director of marketing communications for Microsoft. "Delivering video over IP

is a complex puzzle that fits together technology from many different companies including Microsoft and many others. A lot of stars have to align to make this work."

To its end, Microsoft says it plans to beef up its IPTV software with a host of new features, such as support for new games, customizable channel line-ups, parental controls, and photo sharing, according to a Microsoft representative. The software will also allow people to watch more than two TV channels at once, since it allows more than two smaller preview displays to run within the main display that is being watched.

There are more companies than Microsoft in the IPTV ecosystem, and they will be in full force at Supercomm.

But there are more companies than Microsoft in the IPTV ecosystem, and they will be in full force at Supercomm. More than a dozen companies planning new IPTV gear for use inside the home or deep inside operators' networks.

Westell Technologies, a major phone equipment supplier, plans to introduce a video IPTV router for a wide range of televisions. Juniper Networks, which makes routers that direct traffic across the Internet, has announced it is updating its E-series router to handle video services.

And Alcatel, a leading telecom infrastructure-equipment maker, is showing off a new optical access product based on the International Telecommunications Union's newly ratified Gigabit passive optical network, or GPON standard, which will boost bandwidth capacity in fiber that is deployed directly to homes and businesses from 622mbps to 2.4gbps. Phone companies such as Verizon and SBC have already expressed interest in the technology.

IMS--a new traffic cop?
But to sell TV over their networks, along with broadband and voice, operators need a traffic cop. A new one, known as IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), is drawing lots of attention at Supercomm.

IMS is a technology that allows telecom operators to deliver VoIP and other multimedia applications on wireless and wireline devices. The technology helps provide services such as instant messaging and push-to-talk services that allow cell phones to be used like walkie-talkies.

Several companies, including Nokia and Hewlett-Packard, will be showcasing their IMS solutions. Softswitch maker Veraz will also be demonstrating its product to show how it can work with IMS technology to offer more multimedia services on a variety of end user devices.

Battle of the wireless
Another hot-button issue at Supercomm 2005 is the introduction of commercial products using WiMax, which is wireless technology that promises to deliver super-fast broadband for distances of up to 30 miles.

The commercial WiMax products announced at Supercomm by Intel, Fujitsu America, U.S. Robotics, Aperto Networks and several other firms of others represent quite a comeback story for the technology.

Five months ago, the WiMax Forum, an industry group created to champion standards for WiMax, canceled a series of planned certification tests, which are key steps to take before introducing commercial products. Critics then relegated WiMax to being used to ferry traffic to hard-to-reach or remote locations in rural areas or even in some urban centers.

Signs of the turnaround emerged in April, when chipmaker Intel started distributing its first pre-standard WiMax silicon, known as the PRO/Wireless 5116.

At Supercomm, there will be a rush of new consumer WiMax products. Aperto plans to unveil its entire WiMax lineup at the show, along with several major partnerships with operators. IBM along with partner Redline Communications plans to conduct the first-ever live demos of its WiMax gear.

But when it comes to WiMax, the companies making the biggest splash will undoubtedly be from Fujitsu Microelectronics America, which plans to unveil its WiMax efforts at the show. Exact details of the announcement have been kept under wraps, but the company is expected to announce consumer-oriented products with several key equipment makers.

"Our contention is that 2005 is truly the year in which WiMax technology will emerge in multiple markets worldwide as the leading companies in the industry move forward with significant product development, compliance testing, and initial field deployments," said Keith Horn, senior vice president of Fujitsu Microelectronics America.