IPTV/VoD: The open fourth platform

Rome wasn't built in a day...

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What becomes very clear when thinking through all the implications of building an open system based on the model of the internet, is how a number of centralised systems will be needed. The web has DNS, VoIP has Enum, and IPTV is missing that vital cross-platform international register of assets – a multimedia "DNS" if you will, that all operators can use and reference.

An open system means a standardised billing procedure for nano and micro-payments, multilateral age ratings and parental controls, and centralised authorities such as RIPE and Nominet that can arbitrate amongst networks and content providers to ensure equality of access for all. BSS and OSS (primarily provisioning) services can still remain proprietary if necessary, but an extension of our existing IP-based service infrastructure that is tailored for video will become essential over time.

The ITU recently announced it is setting up a focus group specifically for IPTV and more and more interest is being shown in building a trade organisation that works as a "W3C for IPTV". Work is currently underway to form this very body (tentatively titled as the "IPTV Consortium" or "IPTVC"), which is desperately need to coherently promote the cause of IPTV and on-demand content – to share our vision, the mission to change TV as we know it, and to maintain both open standards and cross-platform interoperability. This much energy and momentum must be channelled so it doesn't become a rudderless ship.

The difficult issue for network operators is how to react to this new era of video delivery. Scaling for video demand is extraordinarily tricky, especially as business models are still being formulated and proven in such a volatile market. The days of the "two tiered internet" are upon us, as services that run over copper DSL are bandwidth hungry and require 100 per cent reliability that is not currently on offer.

The cheapest way to transport media is over the internet, but since it is a bottlenecked pipe, there will almost certainly need to be a layer of specialist carriage (as a VPN) secured on tier one backbone infrastructure that is quality assured and heavily policed to provide the right environment for propagating multimedia cost-effectively worldwide. The Mbone project attempted this but was generally derided as it didn’t have the necessary scope or commercial backing it needed.

The internet in itself is simply a spaghetti of interconnecting networks that talk to each other via peering points – yet another example of openness that has delivered the foundations of the digital infrastructure that will power the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Carphone Warehouse has changed everything by offering free broadband with its branded telephony services, and we have taken a quantum leap that will be sending shockwaves for some time to come. The new ISP dynamic will be free broadband connectivity, pay for by value-added services that start with telecoms products and carry on with IPTV and video on-demand. Bundling will ultimately become about how many services you can squeeze in for free without making a significant loss.

If you're involved in this world, you’ll know that demand has skyrocketed since the beginning of the year – what was a discussion point is now a reality. We've taxied to the runway and the engines are firing up.

It's also important to remember that IPTV is a mechanism for delivering television and doesn’t necessarily involve a set-top box – any IP network that has sufficient bandwidth and is capable of multicast and traffic-shaping can support multimedia services, be it a local area network or 3G mobile platform.

An open platform for IPTV is a concept bigger than your television – it is of a world where there are few limits and massive potential for innovation. Integrating seamlessly between networks needs to be deliberately simple to fuel excitement in the new medium and allow it permeate into other industries and sectors. Maximum choice, heavy personalisation, a preserved experience and seamless mobility are key to our wider economy and are a boon to consumers who are tired of being locked into the prison big TV brands deliberately lock them into. Empower them, and we shall see change unlike anyone has seen in their own lifetime.

It's easy and fashionable to criticise Microsoft for a multitude of sins, its prime one being that just as the man with the hammer thinking everything is a nail, that it assumes people will use TVs the way they use PCs. While that may not be true for the time being, the inescapable and inevitable future is that set-top boxes will improve in capability and ultimately provide a PC-like experience on our TVs as a secondary central machine interface to our lives that we use to get common things done.

But it is dangerous to rubbish that assertion as their mistake is one of timing, not of accuracy. IP will become the dominant method of transmission, and TV will become considerably more interactive, but it will take time. Three months is a long time in this business, but the changes we make now will impact us for decades to come.

© Digital TX Ltd

Digital TX Limited is a London-based provider of technology and consultancy solutions for interactive digital television and broadband media. Alexander Cameron can be reached at alex.cameron@digitaltx.tv.

As well as co-ordinating the birth of the IPTV Consortium (IPTVC), Alex is now offering a great value one-day workshop course on IPTV and Video On-Demand (VoD) specifically for web and media professionals. It can help you get up to speed on the latest technologies, content deals, operators and applications across the world, and offer immense value in identifying both new opportunities and threats for your business and personal career. If you would like more information, call Alex on 07986 373177 or email iptvworkshop@digitaltx.tv. Readers who quote The Register as their source will receive a 10 per cent discount on the course fees.

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