From IPTV to the Cloud

IPTV then and now

Telcos’ move into the TV service space with video content delivery over managed platforms began end of the 90s with the objective to diversify the existing communications service portfolio on one hand but also compete with existing providers of TV services who expanded their services into the telecom space. Fierce competition with cable multi-service operators was and is a core motivation for US telcos to provide live TV and VoD services over their continuously evolving broadband access networks. Dedicated content delivery platforms are established and more or less replicate the conventional TV service experience for consumers, through a variety of broadcast SD and HDTV channels and on demand video content. IP as the underlying protocol was chosen as it offers advantages such as the ability to blend TV with other IP-based services like high speed Internet and IP telephony features, including features such as Caller ID on the TV screen. Even though IPTV has the benefit of enabling a more personalized and interactive TV viewing experience, for instance an interactive program guide or picture-in-picture functionality, the full potential of interactivity features has not yet been tapped.

 It appears that most telecom operators had to circle in on a reliable and consistent service quality experience and an exhaustive competitively priced TV channel and video portfolio instead of exploiting fancy interactivity and personalization features.  Depending on the chosen delivery architecture model, there are significant bandwidth requirements the core and access network domains have to keep up with. VoD is delivered via unicast, meaning there is a single stream per subscriber. Live TV provisioning is realized through multicast protocol which allows pushing the replication point of TV channel streams from the headend toward the access network, which frees up bandwidth in the operator’s transport network. Nevertheless the access network, be it DSL, fiber or broadband wireless based, has to be able to carry the entire video load as it fans out into the consumers’ homes.

Therefore optimizing the delivery of video content from a network bandwidth consumption perspective and assuring a consistent TV viewing experience from a quality of service point of view ended up being the core focus for most operators and prevented them so far from cashing in on the competitive advantage of IP-based content delivery over for instance the interactivity-feature-lacking TV distribution system of cable operators.

Then came Over-The-Top Video

While the cable and telecom world continued pumping money into their delivery networks to beef them up for their own high definition video and TV offering, Internet-based video providers like Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, Roku and many others threw everybody a curve ball by revamping Internet TV with a mix of online television shows, movies and general videos, leveraging the established and expanding high-speed network footprint of broadband providers, both fixed and mobile. Supported by major TV networks who see the Internet as another revenue channel, cable and telecom providers are challenged to evolve their subscription-based content delivery models and compete not just with each other but with a plethora of individual and TV broadcaster-owned online offerings as well as with customer premises equipment solutions including Internet-connected TVs and set-top-boxes with integrated subscription-based and free online TV and video packages.

Telecom operators and cable companies are of course extremely concerned that OTT providers will end up capturing a majority of the value that video over IP promises, which would be another area besides voice where the traditional network providers would be relegated to the role of a dumb pipe provider.

The following is a snapshot of companies involved in the March 2012 OTT conference in Santa Clara, CA – mostly non-telecom or cable operators.

So how are broadband IPTV and cable providers are reacting to that? For now they are working on opening up their walled (TV) gardens to the online world, trying to make their content portfolio available on the web and more devices and not just through their dedicated broadband networks and Set-Top-Boxes. Whether they are also playing around with a mixed data caps approach has yet to be determined. FCC is currently investigating whether cable operators are trying to suppress over-the-top video competition through data caps which could be a major stumble block for OTT providers, including big shots like Sony who has big plans for a competitive home video service.

Video and more from the cloud?

Since Over-The-Top Video is basically delivered through the (Internet) Cloud, IPTV providers are wondering if it is feasible and beneficial for them and their customers to virtualize the current IPTV infrastructure by moving the well established Set-Top-Box (STB) functionality from the customer’s home into the cloud. This would break up the quite rigid content delivery chain into the home by allowing a very light version of the Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) which could even be minimized to a data stick level or integrated into a Smart TV and thus allowing a more flexible CPE environment that is still connected to the operator-controlled content delivery network. This way operators are still able to control the Quality of Service for their TV and video offerings which is not guaranteed for content provided over the Internet. Content would still be provided by headends in their networks but additional functionality would be integrated to allow for rendering and provisioning of Electronic Programming Guides, Remote Control commands, and Apps via the cloud infrastructure.

Besides the big network players like Cisco, Alcatel Lucent and Huawei, California-based ActiveVideo Networks has entered the Cloud TV field with its CloudTV H5 platform which utilizes optimized HTML5 browser technology to execute and render the complete user experience in the cloud.  The entire TV experience is realized on servers in the backend and streamed to the user’s device in a bandwidth-efficient adaptive bit rate video stream.  Subscribers use their remote controls by sending key presses to the remote browser, controlling the application in the same way as with a regular local STB.

When pushing STB functionality into the cloud and delivering TV control and viewing experience via video streams to the user, the obvious concern from a customer’s perspective is latency which was one of the issues Microsoft emphasized on when it introduced a Fast Channel Change mechanism (they call it today Instant Channel Change ICC) with its IPTV solution several years ago.

So besides a potential positive impact on the cost burden for IPTV providers for establishing and maintaining their capital intensive broadband and CDN networks, the service quality is one important factor as the cloud model does not just change the video delivery concept but moves customer control functions and execution of applications “away” from the customer’s premises.  Therefore a careful evaluation of the actual cost situation and user experience impact is required. A key point for such a virtualization effort is that it allows broadband providers to leverage the already familiar cloud concept for their IPTV services and increase the flexibility for the combination of own video offerings with content and apps from third parties, all brought together in the cloud.