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Telco TV

Seeking Sharper Image

5/19/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Even Technologies is hitting the Internet Protocol TV market with a new video-compression technology it says is even better at delivering video — and can cut the bandwidth load for a standard-definition stream to less than a quarter of the rate seen in traditional cable TV systems.

The Vancouver, Canada-based Even and its Duluth, Ga.-based hardware subsidiary, Infinite Video Corp. — which has developed the encoders, digital set-top boxes and video delivery systems — have landed their first customer in Freedom, Wyo.-based telco Silver Star Communications. Starting this summer, Silver Star plans to launch a 125-channel TV service based on the technology.

CUTS BANDWIDTH LOAD

Using a custom version of the familiar JPEG standard for still pictures, Even Technology’s PSI video format whittles the bandwidth load for a standard digital video stream to a slim 750 Kilobits per second, and it can deliver a high-definition stream for a little less than 3 Megabits per second with comparable picture quality, according to CEO Rick Ringma. That compares to MPEG-2’s 4 to 5 Mbps for standard video stream and 19 mbps for an HD stream.

The PSI “codec” (shorthand for coder-decoder) does so by shaving off visual information related to secondary elements in a given video scene, such as background objects.

Instead, it focuses on what are called regions of interest — the parts of an image on which the human eye instinctively focuses, Ringma said.

Using the PSI codec, Infinite Video has developed the IPTV delivery system including encoders and digital set-top boxes. To power them, the company has struck a deal with chipmaker Equator Technologies Inc. — which was recently acquired by Pixelworks — to supply a digital signal processor chip carrying the PSI codec.

Placed at a telco operator’s digital headend, the encoders translate the network MPEG-2 video feeds into the PSI video format, and add an AAC Plus audio codec from partner Coding Technologies. The system uses Secure Media’s encryption scheme to protect the streams and software from ETI Software to connect into the service provider’s billing systems, said Infinite Video co-founder Robert Saunders.

In the subscriber’s home, an Infinite Video set-top box processes and displays the video signal. Box middleware from Kasenna Inc. powers the interactive programming guide and content search functions.

RUNS ON COPPER

The big selling point for Infinite’s IPTV system is that it can supply one high-definition TV stream and two standard-definition streams for a total of 4.5 Mbps bandwidth, so it can be delivered using standard copper phone lines, according to Saunders.

“Now, all of a sudden, that can be done on a telephone company’s existing outside plant, with no need to rebuild,” he said. “It completely changes the economic model.”

In addition to Silver Star, Even and Infinite Video are now in technical trials with three or four unnamed telco TV players, and Ringma said he expects commercial rollouts in the next six months. If those systems prove successful, it could draw in bigger telco players.

“In the next three or four months, when we get two or three of these systems installed, we can then go to any of the majors and say 'Look, it’s working,’” Ringma said. “There have been so many 'what if’ attempts in this space, and the engineering ego that is tied up in the major operators is going to make this difficult.”

TOUGH MARKET

It isn’t easy to introduce a new codec in a market dominated by MPEG-2 video — and with next-generation codecs such as Windows Media 9 and MPEG-4/H.264 already vying for IPTV customers.

To start with, operators are reluctant to tear out existing video equipment in the home or the video headend, so new codec technology may also be limited to hunting for service provider customers that haven’t rolled out IPTV yet, said Ian McKerlich, RealNetworks’ general manager of broadband solutions. A major streaming media technology provider, RealNetworks is active in the TV video space.

“Part of it is, you don’t want to go change the equipment in the consumer’s home, because that is expensive,” he said, adding that also holds true at the network headend, where the operator must either create parallel video-delivery systems to support a new codec service and its existing video service, or completely replace the existing system.

Telco and cable operators also like to see more than one equipment supplier supporting a video-delivery system. On that score, Saunders said Infinite is open to licensing its designs to other manufacturers. If an operator preferred to see multiple box and encoder providers to establish a wider supply chain, “we would work in an intellectual licensing program to do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Even Technologies and Infinite Video have designs beyond telco TV. The pair also intends to market the codec and the encoder systems to Internet and mobile video providers. It is now working on a project with United Kingdom-based Bestfrontseat.com to create an online video-distribution service for live concerts, and it has developed plugins that allow the PSI codec to play on such players as Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Media, Apple Computer Corp.’s QuickTime or RealNetworks Inc.’s RealPlayer.

The challenge in the Internet content realm is to get scale quickly to show content providers that it is worth using.

“Since there are already some established player codecs out there, the quality difference, or other advanced features of the codec beyond quality if there were some, would have to be significant to have a content want to push a new codec onto their customers,” said Jeff Ayers, RealNetworks’ vice president of technology for business products and services.

Still, Ringma said the timing is right for the PSI codec and Infinite Video products to hit the IPTV game.

“For us we had to be far enough along, because our great fear was to get too much interest too soon, and without any technological deployment and then not be able to get value back for the investors,” he said. “Over the years we’ve spent $25 to $30 million dollars on this and it’s sort of like, OK, everybody is going to want their money back at some point.”

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