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IPTV/VoD: The open fourth platform

Rome wasn't built in a day...

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TV over DSL is simply cable in telco's clothes – as far as Joe Public is concerned it's the same service, delivered over copper wiring. The architecture is the same, the content and menus are the same, and the commercial model is the same.

The big difference between Video Networks and NTL however, other than their record-breaking cash burn, is who provides the cabling. Whereas NTL and Telewest had to bear the expense of digging their own infrastructure, Video Networks had to suffer BT.

It could be argued that Video Networks now has the upper hand on cable, as the LLU market in the UK is becoming more fluid and friendly to those willing to invest in it. There are no roads to dig up, plenty of broadband subscribers, and a rapidly improving network that is capable of delivering new and innovative interactive services.

NTL did also lay copper with their fiber deployment and even trialled HDTV over ADSL2+ in the recent past. It would seem that a better route ahead for them to expand their reach would be to invest heavily in LLU and use copper to deliver the same (but heavily adapted) type of service as there is already talk of them using IP as the transmission mechanism over their coax wiring. Naturally, there are huge technical hurdles to overcome with this approach (e.g. cable broadcasts the entire spectrum of changes rather than one at a time in the BT last mile), but if Video Networks can manage it, so can NTL.

So the argument about IPTV desperately needing a differentiating factor is a valid one, but is rapidly becoming a vacuous, bankrupt and fruitless search of a way to be a better cable TV. If, like Homechoice, you go up against cable, or even Sky, you were bound to end up in trouble from the very start.

IPTV as a platform that competes with the incumbents is understandably deserving of scepticism. You're providing the same service, with additional problems included in the bargain for free. The tragedy for the IPTV companies in the UK is that they were decades ahead of their time when they launched, but as all true pioneers eventually experience, just as they break through the ice, they have been scalped. As long as we blindly follow the crowd and revolting venture capitalist train of thought, we will be slicing inches of the wedding cake. We need to be baking a new one.

What we need to do is change our thinking entirely – "outside the box" as fat, political, halitosis-ridden middle managers would say. We need to stop thinking of IPTV as being differentiated by its transmission method, and fly up for the bird's eye plan view of what the next generation of TV will be like as an experience.

The answer to this insidious bankruptcy of thought is deliver a conceptual shift about what TV is. We need to take the openness of the internet and merge it intelligently with the premium content world of pay TV in a way that respects the needs and vested interests of the big brands but is a new type of service that is open to all. We need to take the glasses off that are tinted with brand logos and stop thinking in terms of labels.

The differentiator for IPTV needs to be that it is an open platform that anyone can innovate around. That’s a small statement in words, but it has enormous implications when you think it through. There has never been a TV network in existence that has been open, and if we left it to the corporate fat cats, ever would be. There is no TV platform on the market anywhere in the world that could ever offer the same, or would ever dare.

If we are going to bring the underlying power of the internet to TV, let’s charge it up with 100,000 volts and set out to truly change the entire world, instead of whimpering on about whether it will be a good cable substitute. Let's take the box in the living room and set it on fire, and open it up so anyone can be a BBC. Rome wasn't built in a day, but let's set our sights on something much higher – a greater vision that would be difficult to fulfil in our own lifetimes. When you consider what we could do if we liberate ourselves from the chains of monopoly, it's incredibly exciting. No more walled gardens, no more schedules, and no more limitations. Our current TV platforms all of a sudden look like dinosaurs of a lost age.

There are important caveats to such a dreamy utopian scenario in that consumers don't take to technology like technologists do. The average pub-goer has difficulty coming to terms with programming his old VCR, let alone a shining new interactive set-top box. Sky's genius is making their platform easy enough to use that your pet could work it. We can't overpower consumers with gadgets and overwhelm them with content, as it creates awkward barriers to adoption. This is TV, after all, and carpet-bombing people with everything we can find is overkill, as is working on the false assumption that people use televisions like they use PCs.

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