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IPTV/VoD: The world that's on its way

Part two: The television revolution

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Industry comment One of the most common questions operators and analysts are asked is whether IPTV will happen, and if it does, whether if will deliver its promise.

The answer is probably not one you'd expect. It already has happened, and is already delivering. IP and internet technologies may not turn up on our doorstep or down our aerial socket tomorrow morning, but the key point to remember is that in 20 years it will be the dominant method of broadcasting.

The secret is in seeing the bigger picture. Rupert Murdoch infamously declared recently that market entrants need to operate in the mass market or in niche segments, or else they would be someone’s lunch in the middle ground.

Broadcasters have already seen it, as have a lot of telecoms companies. Cable operators are using IP over their coaxial wiring, every country has one or more "triple play" operators and both BT and Sky are evolving their businesses to so-called "hybrid" distribution that uses a combination of both traditional RF transmission and IP back-channel distribution through broadband.

The last mile copper network in the UK is too unreliable for immediate real-time video on-demand so these first services will see an incremental delivery pattern starting with offline "push" downloading onto PVR hard drives that gradually change to live video. BT's 21CN upgrade and digital switchover will help to drive the migration.

Nearly all the main ISPs that control 95 per cent of the UK broadband market now have a TV play of some kind, and there's no guarantee that they will be the right ones. The landscape is quite a bizarre and fluid tapestry of daily shifting sands that is yet to whip up into a storm. The cable companies have merged and re-branded as Virgin, BT is launching its Vision hybrid, Sky has bought Easynet, Tiscali has acquired Homechoice, Orange is consolidating across Europe and launching its BT clone, Namesco and Eclipse are launching off the Netgem and BT Max platforms. Carphone Warehouse has bought AOL UK, and Pipex is acquiring to get fatter.

The television revolution is not one of on-demand viewing or spectacular interactivity. It's far simpler than that. IPTV introduces internet technology to broadcasting, which is a massively different mechanism of delivering video. Traditional broadcast is promiscuous, in that one signal is sent that anyone can receive. Internet technology is transactional, meaning every viewer is given their own personal copy of a piece of content, or maintains a personal link of some kind to the originating broadcaster. Transactional means a personal request is made, and a personal response is given in return to complete the two way bilateral process.

So what is this vision and promise, and this world that is on its way?

In its most basic form, using IP for transmission means that almost anything that can be done on the web can be done on an IPTV-enabled device, such as a set-top box, mobile phone, or games console. Screens and applications can be built in HTML, Javascript, CSS, Flash, and open-standard mark-up languages (WML, XUL, XAML etc); devices can connect to email (POP3/IMAP etc), Voice-over-IP (voicemail, SIP etc), Instant Messaging (MSN, Skype, XMPP etc), mobile messaging (SMS, MMS etc), and streaming media (RTSP, DivX etc); and software applications can talk to each other and work together using protocols such as SOAP, REST and XML-RPC.

IPTV offers all the strengths of the internet with none of its weaknesses. It means everything from the internet, with rich-quality, interference-free DVD video on-demand. Anyone can develop these services, and reports of their usage can be generated from normal web server logs just as they are for websites. Content producers can go from limited market penetration to unlimited reach of everyone with a phone line or broadband connection. It means broadcasters and every other type of content publisher can strengthen or re-initiate much closer relationships with their viewers.

The internet will eventually be the preferred medium for carrying broadcast television. It will be a particular boon for those who currently use satellite backhaul carriage and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the privilege, as the choice will be between millions of dollars over the years or a bill less than 10 per cent of the cost using the net backbone. All devices will have internet connectivity and be able to communicate with each other internationally in milliseconds, completely transparently, without respect for distance, borders, or language.

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