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IPTV: Still Too New To Define

6/16/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

By the looks of the recent Globalcomm show — one of two big annual gatherings for telephone-industry people — the term “IPTV” is officially a synonym for the word “new.”

Witness: In the printed show guide, 59 companies were listed under an “IPTV” heading. Perhaps more confusingly, 32 companies were listed under “IP Video.” Eighteen companies straddled both categories. Most of them put the letters, which stand for “Internet Protocol television,” front and center.

Yes, in a three-day wander of the show floor at Chicago’s McCormick place, in booths and in sessions, it became clear all over again that the definition of IPTV differs widely — even within the industry that gives the acronym its curious oomph.

For starters, an “IP Video Pavilion,” identified only by a giant banner hanging over a loose grouping of 10-by-20-foot booths, contained nine vendors touting everything from “voice-quality measurement tools” to “converged service-assurance solutions.”

Huh?

VERIZON SAYS IT’S VOD

But vendor positioning is one thing. Service provider intentions are quite another. Along those lines, here’s what a Verizon engineering staffer said, when asking during a panel session how his company defines IPTV: “We think IPTV is mostly video on demand. It’s not broadcast TV, not yet.”

That’s code for “we equate IPTV with switched services,” where “switch” and “VOD” are tacitly interchangeable. Generally speaking, VOD works by sending a stream out to a viewer only when requested. It isn’t a broadcast to all.

Makes sense, but it considerably narrows the scope of the acronym. IPTV just isn’t really a Verizon thing.

It is, however, an AT&T thing. And a Microsoft thing, and an Alcatel thing — to name two of AT&T’s larger suppliers, both very present at Globalcomm. As a group, they’re sowing the sizzle into IPTV.

Partly, AT&T’s cleave to IPTV is technical. Unlike Verizon, AT&T plans to squeeze every drop of broadband it can out of its digital subscriber lines -— and since DSL is innately an Internet Protocol (IP) delivery mechanism, any video running over it is thus “IPTV.”

And yes, it’s switched — but AT&T doesn’t stop at VOD to explain what it wants to do with its IPTV.

WHAT AT&T MIGHT DO

That’s why it was especially illuminating to drop in on the IPTV demonstrations in the (very crowded) Alcatel booth. If trade-show demonstrations are any predictor of future service offerings, and if AT&T does what Alcatel’s booth actors showed (oh so cheerfully!), then here’s what AT&T has up its sleeve as competitive offerings.

First was a “what’s hot” application, which shows the top-five shows being viewed by “the IPTV universe” at that moment in time. It works by monitoring the “joins and leaves” of each subscriber, to each channel. Meaning how many people jump onto a stream of a show, versus how many people tune away.

Another one involved remote babysitting, for lack of a better term. You’re out to dinner with your sweetie, but you’re worried about what your kids are watching on TV. You whip out your “mobile device,” inspect the tuner on the set-top at home, and see where your kids are visually parked.

If you don’t like it, send a text message: “Go to bed.” If that doesn’t work, turn the TV off entirely. (They didn’t say whether you could turn it off until you got home, or whether Junior could walk across the room and turn it back on.)

Of course, there was the whole fast-channel-change thing. And video channel surfing, where a small, picture-in-picture box appears on the lower left corner of the active viewing screen, displaying, with video, what’s on, when you channel surf. But those last two apps are “old,” as IPTV demos go.

IT ISN’T INTERNET VIDEO

Microsoft’s view of IPTV came during a breakout session, where Ed Graczyk — a rare constant on the company’s television team — gave a lengthy and cogent definition of what IPTV is and isn’t. What IPTV isn’t, he said, is MSN Video, Google Video, or ABC.com streaming episodes of Desperate Housewives. Nor is it “low-quality, best-effort, small-size video — that’s Internet video.”

Instead, IPTV is what lifts the television from its long-standing position as an independent, largely unconnected silo. Where the television brought the world into your living room, half a century ago, “we’re now on the cusp of where TV is about to bring your living room to the world,” Graczyk offered.

IPTV is different than “Internet video,” he said, because it’s delivered over a managed network. “It’s not on the public Internet, where you can’t guarantee quality of service. It’s a competitive service, on a managed network.”

But my personal favorite among the wildly ranging IPTV definitions at Globalcomm sprang from an employee at one of the 59 listed IPTV-related companies. His definition of IPTV: “Well, clearly, it’s video over IPTV.”

Clearly.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com.

September