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The route to market for UK ISPs

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Generally speaking, an ISP’s customer base is considerably more tech-savvy and more predisposed to adopting technology earlier than the average everyday citizen. They look for maximum value and discriminate ruthlessly, requiring a great amount of commercial design on behalf of the vendor.

The answer to such a demanding audience is to include a mixture of their favourite technology, safe in the knowledge that you will be able to please them for some time to come before the functionality offered is redundant or depreciated. That combination is Free-to-Air broadcast TV (complete with smart-card access if necessary), intelligent PVR functionality, and the software built in to provide advanced interactive services like IPTV, VoD, gaming, network multimedia browsing and more later on. The latter is crucial to insure future-proofing for the challenges to come.

Advantages of taking this more considered value-added approach are that the demand for the hybrid device mass market product is already proven and it allows an operator to ‘piggyback’ on the platform rather than be forced to absorb the risks associated with building something from scratch. As most ISPs resell BT Wholesale DSL products, it is also the only way to incorporate live television as the core legacy copper network does not have multicast capability until the 21CN project is concluded. In an ever more crowded marketplace, extending DVB-T reach is the best fit an operator can expect if they do not have the budgets of the top 10 carriers.

There are certain inescapable pre-conditions that need to be addressed in order to meet the expectations of subscribers used to 100 per cent TV reception and/or ‘5 nines’ connection reliability from their ISP. At the top of the list of these issues is Quality of Service (QoS), which as a working system enforces strict rules on the broadband connection supplied by the home and is used to create ‘virtual channels’ that are respective traffic partitions for voice, video and internet data. QoS is split into two distinct territories – the backhaul network and the home network.

The core BT Wholesale products (DataStream & IPStream), which fall into the former category for most ISPs, are contended mass-market offerings that deliberately have no QoS built in – vested interests and common wisdom dictate that as soon as BT apply QoS to their network, their considerable core revenues from PSTN traffic will begin to spiral due to competition from VoIP services.

Backhaul QoS is implemented by the ISP operator as a multiplex of ‘virtual’ traffic channels, typically as a mix of ATM and IP technologies.

Despite open industry QoS standards, residential premises are trickier, as bandwidth control is not implemented in a formulaic way that it needs to be – there are nearly 10 major providers of connectivity CPE (including Belkin, Netgear, Linksys, DLink, Actiontec etc), and all have different QoS capabilities and implementations. In practice this means that each ISP must support a very small range of devices which they have pre or re-configured.

The TV receiver device can incorporate extensive branding and marketing opportunities at many different levels – customisation can be achieved on the physical casing(s), and/or in the software applications that are used to operate it. In day to day terms, this can mean start-up screens, start-up videos, screensavers, EPG ‘skins’ and the specifying of a portal ‘homepage’ for interactive services that can be hosted by the ISP.

Rather than individually customising each unit on the production factory floor, it is possible to build an ‘activation’ mechanism that is executed over the broadband network to download the necessary personalisation features when the box is first used (DHCP supplies several useful parameters too, such as a starting homepage). These basic functions of the device must be left intact and be usable at all times, regardless of whether the ISP that supplied it stays as the owner’s preferred provider.

The promises of converged IP services and advanced technologies that the set-top box is capable of delivering do not need to be enabled by default, and in fact, shouldn’t be. These features would almost need to be activated at the discretion of the ISP as and when they believe the market is ready for them. The key point is to make them available for use. Adding the capability for new technologies into the set-top box is as simple as a personalised and intelligent software update. Granting access to each per subscriber requires a commercial activation mechanism supplied by the distributor to make them ‘live’.

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