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Telco TV

Might Be Time for 'IPTV Labs’

11/10/2006 7:03 PM Eastern

Grapevine, Texas— Dozens of video wares were on brilliant display at the Telco TV conference here last week. But there wasn’t always a guarantee that any two products being hawked would work together off the shelf.

Like the Internet itself, the software and hardware used to deliver Internet Protocol television services run on a standard underlying network — otherwise, though, IPTV products don’t have to follow any particular rules.

“The beauty of IPTV is that it’s based on an open network,” said Roy Kirsopp, vice president and general manager of Amino Communications, an IPTV set-top box developer in Cambridge, U.K. “But that means, effectively, that you have to do a custom implementation for each customer.”

Amino’s set-tops have been deployed by 85 providers worldwide. Not one of them, Kirsopp said, uses the same combination of infrastructure components.

A NEED FOR ORDER

Now there’s talk that several big telcos are considering forming a body akin to the cable industry’s CableLabs to direct IPTV standardization and impose some order on technology suppliers.

AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon Communications and the United Kingdom’s BT earlier this year formed an ad hoc group to set interface standards for IPTV devices, according to an executive at a video-processing-gear company — adding that the effort could, at some point, encompass a CableLabs-like mission of testing and certifying products.

On another front, AT&T this summer initiated a meeting of service providers to try to agree on a common format for video-on-demand metadata, said an executive with a company that provides services to IPTV operators. “It was the first time we all got into the same room to talk about these kinds of issues,” the executive said.

Ideally, such steps would eliminate the pain involved today in cobbling together different vendors’ products. But they appear to be at very early stages. Representatives from AT&T and Verizon Communications said they haven’t heard of any such telco-led initiative to create a CableLabs-like organization. Neither has CableLabs, said Mike Schwartz, the group’s senior vice president of communications.

To be sure, certain technology standards are emerging by general consensus among IPTV operators and vendors.

MPEG-4, for example, has gained currency as the next-generation video format for IPTV (though, as in the cable world, less-efficient MPEG-2 compression is more common today). More broadly, the telecom industry is driving toward the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) specification, which is supposed to facilitate communications across multiple network types and devices.

And there’s at least one industry consortium already attempting to hash out some technical standards for IPTV.

The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), which counts AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon among its 350 members, last year created the IPTV Interoperability Forum (IIF), which is charged with developing “standards and related technical activities that enable the interoperability, interconnection and implementation of IPTV systems and services,” according to the group’s site.

By the end of the year, the IIF expects to release a framework document specifying quality-of-service metrics, said Trish St. Michel, the group’s media relations manager.

But ATIS’s plans don’t yet include interoperability testing, which is a core part of CableLabs’ charter. St. Michel said that while members have raised the possibility of creating a certification program, “it has not yet been determined whether it will take place within the IIF.”

WHOSE AGENDA?

Some industry players see another crucial difference between CableLabs and ATIS, in that ATIS has invited IPTV technology vendors, as well as service providers, to participate in the specification-development process.

“At the end of the day, the service providers need to decide what’s best for the industry,” said Tom Rosenstein, vice president of business development for gear supplier SeaChange International. He predicted that a telco-funded certification body for IPTV, if it materializes, is at least two years off.

Others believe the agendas of AT&T and Verizon, the two telco giants in the North American market, are too divergent to provide a starting point for an “IPTV Labs.” AT&T is using digital subscriber line to deliver U-verse TV service, while Verizon’s FiOS TV is based on fiber-to-the-home technology.

The IPTV landscape is “so fragmented from a vendor and telco perspective,” said Nimrod Ben-Natan, vice president of solutions and strategy for Harmonic, a maker of video-encoding gear. “I don’t see the telcos doing their own CableLabs.”

For now, vendors are trying to sort through the mix on their own. Nortel, for one, has positioned itself as an IPTV systems integrator for telcos, one that can assemble all the components for a video service and guarantee that they’ll work together. Other equipment vendors, including fiber-optic networking providers Alcatel and Calix, have similar interoperability testing programs.

“IPTV technology is very immature,” Nortel’s Couch said. “It’s not like the cable industry, where everything fits together and works.”

September