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Fragmentation slows IPTV adoption

Posted: 01 May 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IPTV? STB? XX? XX? XX?

Will IPTV follow the path of other interactive-TV platforms, blazing onto the scene only to fizzle into a minor market that leaves pundits grasping for explanations?

IPTV is the real deal, sources said, noting that operators in Europe and Asia have already pulled off successful deployments. Many of those pioneers are telcos that earlier deployed broadband over DSLs for Internet data service and are now expanding into IP voice and video for "triple-play" service.

Meanwhile, IC suppliers, system vendors and software companies have joined the bandwagon.

However, a closer look at the market reveals that today's IPTV design requirements are fragmented and that technology suppliers are still struggling to find sizable commercial deployments to which they can sell their products in volume. Asked what's high on his IPTV wish list, Alan Delaney, product manager for IPTV at set-top box (STB) developer Pace Micro Technology plc, bluntly responded, "Purchase orders."

Today's IPTV market is geographically fragmented by deployment typecable, satellite or terrestrialand by regional differences in DTV requirements. For example, while some regions consider standard-definition TV good enough for an IPTV rollout, others call for HDTV.

Available bandwidth and data rates also vary among DSL infrastructures. And there's no standardization among requirements for conditional access and digital rights management (DRM).

Some operators insist on IPTV as a key element in a one-box triple-play package. Others demand that IP-based content be received on a separate STB, but be able to move freely among networked devices within the home.

Most of the current IPTV deployments are directly tied to a specific service provider, with an end-to-end infrastructure carefully tuned and managed to optimize QoS. But some market watchers envision an IPTV STB that would receive free-range IP-based video programming from a wide range of sourcesboth near and far, domestic and international.

Scot Robertson, director of networked media products at Analog Devices Inc., noted that an IPTV box that didn't rely on a single service provider would have to be highly flexible, supporting a range of data rates and codecs.

IPTV 'fallacies'
"There are two fallacies about IPTV," said Bradley Graham, VP at broadband infrastructure provider Harmonic Inc. First, "IPTV does not mean that you need to use an advanced codec.

Second, "IPTV is not a synonym for a Microsoft Corp.-based IPTV platform."

Many IPTV deployments today are still MPEG-2-based and are not using Microsoft's TV IPTV Edition platform.

Indeed, technology companies eyeing the IPTV market can't afford to bet on just one horse. "We need to be agnostic not only in terms of middleware, browser and conditional access, but also in video servers and encoders," said Pace Micro's Delaney.

That said, many IPTV deployments are shifting toward programming based on HD resolution.

The transition to H.264 video is under way in China. ADI's Robertson called it "a big change" from Chinese service providers' focus in 2005 on MPEG-4 Advanced Simple Profile-based coding.

Microsoft, which is positioned to serve theoretically 26 percent of the world's fixed-access phone subscribers with its own IPTV platform, has become a guiding light to chip vendors seeking access to the high-end IPTV market. Eleven operators around the world have signed up for Microsoft's early adopter program. They include British Telecom, Swisscom, SBC, Verizon, T-Online in France, Telecom Italia, Bell Canada, Bell South and India's Reliance Infocomm.

Microsoft has spelled out what it expects of IPTV STB silicon in terms of feature sets, integration level and mass-production deadlines. "Microsoft is predefining the whole user experience," said Silvio Perich, senior VP at digital media processing vendor Sigma Designs Inc.

Microsoft dictates IPTV chip design down to such details as the exact graphics features and video decoding processing capabilities. Microsoft-defined specs for IPTV chips include advanced features such as HD with picture-in-picture, higher security when connected to other devices, mandatory support for Microsoft's DRM scheme, and support for the VC-1 superset of the Windows Media Video 9 codec.

According to Perich, Microsoft specifies that the HD decoder handle 16 percent more macroblocks per second than single-HD-stream processing to support such advanced features as high-definition picture-in-picture.

"There is definitely a sense of urgency on the part of telcos and Microsoft to add 'wow' factors to IPTV boxes" to enhance competitiveness with cable-based solutions, he said.

Sigma Designs was the first chip vendor to offer what Perich called "healthy working silicon" that allowed Microsoft to port its client software. Other vendors are now falling in line.

WISchip International Ltd, for example, announced a chip that supports Microsoft's IPTV platform by handling high-definition A/V decoding, multiple DRM schemes and networking.

Once IPTV STBs become entrenched in the home environment, content owners believe that consumers will start streaming IP-based A/V files among networked home devices, preferably in a protected manner. Thus, WISchip is highlighting its part's ability to handle a broad range of content-protection schemes and the fact that all content going out of its chip will be encrypted or scrambled. This extra security measure follows complaints from content owners that the content going from a decoder chip to an external memory travels "in the clear."

Sigma Designs has also beefed up security features in its SMP8630. The company added a special "secure CPU," running at 200MHz, to handle DRM separately from the solution's 300MHz MIPS main CPU.

"A theme I have heard over and over is that while it is technologically possible to move content around devices, little will happen until content owners are convinced that the content will be protected," remarked Michelle Abraham, a senior analyst with market research firm In-Stat.

Regulatory issues will figure highly in the success, or lack thereof, of IPTV, sources said.

In China, for example, a regulatory change requiring IPTV to use existing broadcast licenses caused a sudden drop-off in IPTV shipments to that market this year, ADI's Robertson said. But the company remains committed to the Chinese market, he said, adding that China "remains the largest and highest-growth IPTV market."

The country's large and growing base of broadband households and its low penetration of cable and satellite service relative to other regions provide strong fundamentals, Robertson said.

- junko yoshida
ee times

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