IPTV(Internet Protocol Television) is changing the face of television, providing a new alternative for consumers, operators, broadcasters, content providers and advertisers.
Stephen Davies gives an overview of a brand new world that awaits us all. In most Western nations there are about 500 TV sets per 1,000 people, but in Australia and the United States - where 75% of households have two or more TVs - the figure is more than 800 sets. Our typical per-capita daily viewing is more than four hours for adults and six for children.
Television viewers today have access to more content from more sources, and they want it on demand rather than at times dictated by the networks and advertising income. Devices such as digital video recorders (DVRs) from TiVO, Slingbox and Foxtel's iQ offer some 'smarts', but the single biggest advance in user interaction and control is the Internet.
High-speed broadband - using ADSL2 +, VDSL or fibre to the home (FTTH) - has had a dramatic effect on mainstream channels. And the 'fast tracking' of programs from the United States is causing networks to rethink how they deliver programming (and make money).
Channel Nine has offered various programs, including Macleod's Daughters, The Strip,Canal Road and Sea Patrol via its website for nearly two years, calling it 'Catch up TV'. Channel Ten started doing the same this year with Rove, Kenny's World, Rush, Neighbours and Good News Week. But of all the channels, the ABC has the most extensive online viewing options with its iView system. These networks and the use of Internet protocol have created an alternative delivery method for television and other video services such as You Tube and Apple's iTunes video rental.
Television is now being delivered using the broadband medium IPTV, or Internet Protocol Television. The MPEG-based digital video signal is encoded in a series of Internet protocol packets and delivered over a packet based network such as Ethernet. If you have watched a video clip from You Tube, then, in its broadest sense, you have used IPTV But when most people in the industry talk about IPTV, they mean watching conventional channels with a high-resolution, jitter-free picture.
It is typically the telecommunications carriers that are jumping head-first into this market to replace income lost to increased competition. The term IPTV appeared in the mid-1990s when Precept Software created an Internet video product called IPTV - an MBONE compatible application that moved MPEG-1 traffic using unicast and multicast IP packets. (MBONE, or multicast backbone, was an experimental backbone for moving IP multicast traffic across the Internet.)
In 1998 Precept was acquired by Cisco Systems, which retains the trademark to IPTV.
Early in 2000, several companies around the world began offering commercial lPTV services. The first recorded commercial service in Australia was launched in 2001 by Bright Telecommunications, a Perth-based company owned by the State Government electricity provider Western Power.
Bright had started a commercial pilot to roll out FTTH in conjunction with the under grounding of the electricity network. It provided 20 free-to-air and pay TV channels and VoD that included an array of content such as movies, some locally produced Channel Nine programs and a very early version of ABC's iView.
Early in 2008, after the sale of Bright Telecommunications, the pilot and the IPTV network was shut down.
TransACT, a Canberra-based broadband network operator, has been running an IPTV network for several years, although it started as a proprietary DSUATM video network. The TransTV service has about 5,000 subscribers. It offers 50 broadcast channels of movies, entertainment, children's programs, parliament, sport and variety, plus on-demand adult and sports content. TPG Internet is delivering a small selection of IPTV broadcast channels over its ADSL2+ network as a free trial service.
So what is the difference between IPTV and conventional broadcast TV? In a word: control.
IPTV, being based on a two-way protocol, gives the user greater interactivity with the medium and the content. The provider can better meet the wishes of the user, who has influence over the programs and timing.
IPTV is the engine that will drive the new era of interactive content. The success or failure of operators - free and pay - will depend on them being ahead of the game with the new technologies, new content formats and new business models that IPTV ushers in. In its simplest form, we already have access to interactive features of IPTV - the 'trick play' functions of pause, rewind and fast forward that we find on DVRs such as TiVO. This does not allow us to change the content or its inherent linearity, only how we control the viewing and when we view it.
At the next level, IPTV features allow you to 'touch' the program content, perhaps by ordering a product being advertised or voting on a reality TV show via your remote control. In its most sophisticated form, IPTV will immerse you in the program - the content itself being changed by viewer input.
We are beginning to see some of this interactivity in the Australian market, mainly on pay TV provider Foxtel. Foxtel's 'Red Button' gives limited interaction - the data is already imbedded in the content stream, so it is not the true interactivity of two-way communication.
Video on demand (VoD) is another advantage of IPTV Unlike the 'near video on demand' offered by Foxtel, it gives you the freedom to choose from a variety of content and start watching when you want - pausing, fast forwarding and rewinding.
It is just like watching a DVD, the main difference being that it is delivered using I P and can be received online and in real time. VoD has been a great success in other markets, particularly Asia, but the problem for Australia has been the restrictive licensing agreements with the Hollywood movie houses, the distribution channel and our lack of high speed broadband networks.
In Asia there are about 22 million broadband subscribers connected with fibre, and in the US there are 3.7 million, offering the networks and the market scale to enable a new business model for the delivery of premium video content. Australia has fewer than 8,000 subscribers connected with fibre. Although we have many ADSL2+ subscribers, to deliver a quality IPTV and therefore VoD service the content providers expect a secure network with suitable electronic protections. Also, the video stream needs to have a low latency 6-8Mbps dedicated circuit with quality of service, which is something no ADSL2+ network in Australia offers.
TransACT offers a small selection of content with adult and sports themes over its high-speed FTTC network. In the past it had agreements with two 'premium' content providers, but neither was able to deliver the content at a reasonable price, nor was the content choice up to date or comprehensive.
Another Australian contender called Real time launched a pay-per-view service in 2006, but again the price was high, the quality inferior and the content frequently outdated. Real time had difficulty attracting interest from service providers and was placed into administration late in 2007.
Since then it has been purchased by EzyDVD, the online video store that posts rentals to your home. Apple launched a video rental service via iTunes earlier this year, but this is 'download to view'.
The most exciting advantage of IPTV is in converged services. Many of us have a smart phone, such as Apple's iPhone, which enables us to make calls, synchronise contacts and calendars, and use email. Converged services on television enable us to watch programs, read email, answer the phone, check local weather, look at fuel prices, order food, browse the I Internet, or plan a trip and then download it to a GPS device. Convergence for television also means we have more variety of content, which can be from You Tube, RooMedia, ABC online, NineMSN - or any of the multitudes of online sources that provide short-play videos.
At the moment, neither Foxtel nor Austar supports residential deployment of their content using an IPTV medium. They still have several commercial and technical hurdles to overcome. Because of this delay, and the lack of quality VoD content, it will be some time before IPTV goes mainstream in Australia.
By 2013, it is estimated 600 million households around the world will have access to the new medium.