Internet protocol TV (IPTV) is the flavor du jour, but, like Baskin Robbins ice cream, it comes in several flavors. For cable operators, IPTV can mean transporting content from one headend to another. Cable operators also use IP for their backbones, video-on-demand (VOD) deployments, metropolitan area networks (MANs) and broadcast of video content to distribution hubs via Gigabit Ethernet (GigE). "I’m sure Comcast has more video surrounded by IP headers than anyone out there because our regular VOD network comes of out of servers as IP, goes around regional networks as IP, and is transported to the MPEG-2 transport layer in IP," says David Fellows, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. "By the end of the year, we’ll have served up over a billion streams on our video-on-demand network. Where we have launched digital simulcasts, and by the end of the year we’ll be in three-fourths of our systems, all of those channels are carried by IP multicast." Time Warner and IPTV: San Diego While the lines blur on the definition of IPTV (see sidebar for more information), most of the hype lately has come from the Baby Bells’ plan to use IP to deliver video content to the TV set over their fiber and copper networks. IPTV can mean the end device is using IP to receive content without radio frequency (RF) tuners or quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), or IP can be used to deliver content to a PC or device over the Internet. The multiple definitions breed misunderstanding. "Some people in the more general business press seem to think that IP is a silver bullet where you can leapfrog everything," Time Warner Cable spokesman Mark Harrad says. "It’s simply a standard like anything else." Time Warner Cable has taken a more adventurous approach to IPTV with its trial in two neighborhoods in San Diego. TWC cable launched a trial, using RealNetworks’ technology suite, in early July of "Broadband TV" to 9,000 customers in the San Diego neighborhoods of Mira Mesa and Tierrasanta, both of which have their own nodes but form their own advertising zone. The trial entails delivering TWC’s 75 basic channels to customers’ PCs or laptops by using IP as the last delivery leg into the homes instead of MPEG-2 (Figure 1). In order to take part in the trial, viewers must subscribe to TWC’s Road Runner high-speed Internet service and cable video service. Harrad says the two-pronged goal of the six-month trial is to see if customers want to watch the same TV offerings on PCs and whether the plant can handle the service. Hybrid install On the plant side of the equation, integrating RealNetworks’ solution was relatively easy since TWC had previously worked with RealNetworks on another unannounced project in the same system. "We started the installation in early May, the service was launched June 21, and then it went public in July," says Jeff Duchman, RealNetworks’ general manager of broadband technologies. "It took us roughly three months, but many of the components were already in place, so this was kind of a hybrid installation. We only needed to put in the encoding farm and some additional streaming servers for this trial." TWC is using RealNetworks’ encoder, Helix servers, Helix digital rights management, and a middleware stack for the service while the cable company is supplying the video and electronic program guide (EPG). Real’s encoding farm is in TWC’s headend while the servers reside in a regional data center. "We’re using our Real Producer software to compress it," Duchman says. "All of the streams are at 764 kb, and they’re also live encrypted using our digital resource manager. It’s (video content) sent to the servers, and then the clients connect to those servers." In order to view the content, customers need to download a RealNetworks media player and then log onto a Web site by using their account numbers. The Real media player can pause content up to 12 hours, but it can’t save shows as a personal video recorder (PVR) can. Harrad says the actual picture that shows up on PCs is comparable to most TV sets and isn’t latent or broken up. "It’s very similar technology to what is used on the Internet, but we’ve optimized this for live channels," Duchman says. "I think the experience is much better than what you get on the Internet today, and that’s because it’s a closed network. It’s a known environment for them (TWC), and they can control how these users access these servers." Security still a priority David Housman, Charter Communications’ vice president of technology and strategy, says security is one area of concern when content is being delivered to devices other than TV sets. "The thing we have to be very careful on is when we treat these IP video streams that are going to a nonTV device—a nonMoto or nonS-A box—is that the digital rights management (DRM) needs to be, at a minimum, as secure as it is today," Housman says. "We need to have a clear distinction of IP transport to a device that is protected vs. something that we’re kind of dumping on the Internet. My understanding is that the programmers have no intention of letting that happen, and I don’t blame them. It (programming) is an asset, and to just turn it loose on the Internet makes no sense to them or to me." Real points to its past experience in working with Hollywood and record labels for its digital resource manager and Real player technologies, which encrypt the streams so that neighbors aren’t able to pick up the content via a wireless connection. Bill Joll, RealNetworks’ vice president of market for carrier software solutions, says the future potential of IPTV to nonTV devices includes targeted advertising to viewers based on profiles that the operator compiles, as well as interactive applications such as EPGs. And while the TWC trial doesn’t include premium channels, Joll says Real’s middleware could tie into a cable operator’s backend to make sure the user profiles are mapped with the type of service the cable operator wants to provide. Duchman says TWC could have included premium channels in its trial but chose not to, and there are a variety of features, such as parental controls, that make sure the right content is delivered to the right PC. Comcast’s Fellows isn’t convinced that this part of the puzzle has been solved. "It’s actually not a plumbing problem because I can take HBO and stream it to your PC," he says. "The issue is that, historically, the high-speed provisioning system, or infrastructure, has no idea if you’re an HBO subscriber or not. It knows what your e-mail address is, and it knows your voice mail address, but it’s a third step for it to know your video entitlement." Comcast streams While TWC’s San Diego trial has garnered a lot of attention this year, Comcast’s Fan portal, which it launched three years ago, essentially does the same thing by delivering content to PCs with IP, but it doesn’t use Comcast’s TV video content. The Fan sends streaming clips that are authored by its programming department in a manner that is similar to portals at Yahoo or MSN. The Fan currently comes in 10 different streams, including categories for music, news, and gaming. The streaming video is sent out to an edge server using IP and a content distribution network. IP is then used to send streams from the edge, or caching server, to a PC. Like Time Warner Cable, Comcast is still analyzing whether customers want to watch television on PCs or other devices. "Right now, we’re being a little more selective with our video, and we’re not just duplicating it (on the Fan)," Fellows says. "We’re still trying to decide if people want to be couch potatoes in front of a PC, but certainly a lot of video content is available, and the actual plumbing is in place if our business people decide, just like Time Warner, this is something people want. If it is, we’ll be ready to launch." Housman says there’s no reason to give up on the current MPEG-2 infrastructure of delivery video in favor of IPTV because MPEG-2 is in place, and it fits all of Charter’s needs. Fellows says one of IPTV’s potential attractions in the future is switched digital broadcasts, which would use some IP. Under this scenario, cable operators could save bandwidth by not keeping a dedicated channel on the network when a subscriber isn’t viewing that channel. Charter’s roadmap For now, cable operators are keeping a close eye on TWC’s San Diego trial while doing their own homework. Charter’s Housman says sending content to a home via IP "is strictly a science project in the lab right now." Charter currently has such a lab project underway in Denver and is looking at delivering enhanced content via IP, but not necessarily video; it could also include interactive applications and/or set-top boxes. Charter is considering IP video technologies for nonTV devices, but hasn’t specified what those devices are. "We’re very, very much in the early stages," Housman says. "We’ve discussed whether it would be more appropriate to put an IP-video lineup in an office building vs. the traditional HFC (hybrid fiber/coax), MPEG-2, and whether that would give us an advantage to do channel lineups easier or allow them to select content more easily. We haven’t fallen into a religious category about what we think the absolute right experience is." Housman also doesn’t see any big, hairy surprises in other parts of the network should Charter decide to use IPTV for delivery of video. "We’ve mapped it out to look at how many streams and nodes we would be using during peak times, how large the server farms have to be to handle the strains, and what it does to bandwidth," he says. "We’ve gone through these engineering studies to do the mapping, and at the end, it was kind of like, `OK, no big deal; next subject.’ The only surprise would be if the take rates, or amount of streams, would triple or quadruple over our estimates, but we were fairly aggressive in our estimates. We’re confident at this point, so we’re continuing to explore." Mike Robuck is associate editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at Hildebrand on IPTV: Clearing the Confusion Cox Communications is using IP to deliver San Diego Padres baseball games to the PCs of cable modem subscribers, but the cable operator isn’t ready to deliver its TV video content to PCs or other devices. John Hildebrand, Cox’s vice president of multimedia engineering, says the following drivers need to be in place to change his position on deploying IPTV: *IPTV must enable some new product or service: "If it enables some new source of revenue that’s unavailable with our existing MPEG-2 network, then it would certainly become of interest very quickly for us," he says. * IPTV must provide some unique operational efficiency. * There must be some significant cost savings that would come to Cox by implementing video over IPTV. Hildebrand also says there’s a lot of confusion about what IPTV is, including: *"People confuse it with some particular video compression technology. They think IPTV is better because it’s AVC or MPEG-4, and that’s not the case. You can send any video compression technology over IPTV just like you can over MPEG-2. *"It shouldn’t be confused with some kind of advanced video services. The video services the IPTV proponents are talking about delivering are video services that can be delivered with the technologies we already have." *"IPTV shouldn’t be confused with all digital. All digital can be done over the existing MPEG-2 networks just like it can be done over IP. No difference." *"It shouldn’t be confused with DOCSIS, although DOCSIS incorporates IP as one of its network layers. IPTV does not equal DOCSIS. It shouldn’t be confused with that. DOCSIS 3.0 will ease the coexistence of MPEG-2 and IP over a single piece of coax. But I don’t tie IPTV with DOCSIS 3.0. If you look at Time Warner’s trial, they’re sending video over a DOCSIS 1.1 network, so there is nothing magic about future versions of DOCSIS." *"People confuse it with better, cheaper, newer, faster, in some ways superior to what cable companies are doing today. We look at what we’re doing with our network today and say, `Gee whiz, we can do, or are doing, or will do those exact same things with our existing network,’ so why should we change?" —Mike Robuck

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