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Is IPTV ready for standards?

Posted: 17 Dec 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DVB? IPTV standard? interoperable specification?

MacAvock: It would be a shame to develop standards that are unusable.

Delivery of TV-based services over Internet Protocol (IP) networks is nothing new. With the advent of high-speed and reliable broadband networks in many countries, operators have sought for some time to offer some kind of video services over these. It's just that they are getting quite complicated now.

Enter the DVB Project. (Oh no, not again, I hear you say.) There are many IPTV offerings out there already. Is the DVB Project going to produce yet another one? Well, yes, and they've done it already, but in such a manner as to facilitate the changes affecting the IPTV sector with the sole aim of adding value.

DVB-IPTV is the collective name for a set of open, interoperable technical specifications developed by the DVB Project for the delivery of DTV using IP over bidirectional fixed broadband networks.

Traditionally, DVB services are delivered over unidirectional channels on satellite, cable or terrestrial networks. This is the classic one-to-many architecture common to all broadcasting systems. As broadcasting has become more complex and interactive, the standards necessary for interoperability and multivendor support have become increasingly important. Hence, DVB's work on PHY returns channel solutions for interactivity and the middleware associated with it.

IPTV is a very different environment!at least up until now. Broadband networks are fundamentally bidirectional and are the preserve of telecommunications operators who are less familiar with, or concerned about, the rigors of open standards. Hence, the current proliferation of differing solutions are largely based on proprietary techniques.

With competition becoming more intense, IPTV is changing. With improved speed and quality, the offering from operators is becoming necessarily more complex. With this increased complexity comes a realization that single-vendor proprietary approaches aren't sufficient any more. Multivendor support is now considered a must, and with it, interoperability becomes a key factor. These two items alone point to a need for open standards in this area.

Operators and vendors alike have sought appropriate standardization from a number of organizations and DVB has sought to meet these requirements by standardizing key elements of IPTV systems. DVB is not the only one operating in the area!indeed, IPTV benefits from a significant number of bodies working on different elements of the chain. One of the first tasks of any body seeking to work on standards in IPTV must be to liaise with the others to find out where the gaps are.

Changing perceptions
But do IPTV operators really like standards? Up until now, the answer to this question is, unfortunately, no. This means that operators are coming at open standards from quite a distance. Any standards organization working in the domain needs to be sensitive to the current situation. This is why it's important that standards are perceived to "add value" to IPTV, rather than hinder its development. A "light touch" is required to reassure operators that open standards have significant benefits over proprietary solutions.

Indeed, there is a trend in some markets where operators choose open standards for some elements of their system, such as in service discovery and selection, but they then choose proprietary solutions for key service elements such at the electronic program guide.

And looming over the horizon is what might be described as "open Internet TV," as evidenced by the success of Joost and Babelgum. These "operators" come from an entirely different environment!and one which is not used to the rigors of standards. Nonetheless, they suffer the same problems as other operators!QoS, program guides, remote user management etc.!albeit with different characteristics than the closed-loop IPTV operators. A correctly targeted standardization approach can address their requirements as well.

The final group of IPTV enthusiasts comes from an unusual source. While normally considered competitors to IPTV, cable operators are embracing IPTV as well. Called upon to offer triple- and quadruple-play options for their customers, cable operators often see real advantages with the use of IP wherever possible. After all, the telephony and broadband services use IP over their cable networks!it seems logical that video-on-demand and even mainstream TV services could also use IP transport. This trend is particularly noticeable in the United States.

The initial phase of DVB's work concentrates on the interface between the IPTV STB and the IP-based home network..

Meanwhile, standards are one thing!implementing them is quite another. Especially with organizations such as ETSI-TISPAN, ATIS, DSL Forum and DLNA all working in the area, it's important that operators don't get confused as to what they should implement. Interoperability is only guaranteed if there are good links between those bodies working in the area!including common goals, reference models and an appropriate division of tasks. We're not there yet, but at least all the bodies are talking to each other!thereby minimizing the risks.

Balancing act
At the coalface of IPTV implementations, operators are anxious to ensure that they have the option to implement open standards if they choose, but also to retain some proprietary elements. Standards bodies need to be aware of this particular need in the market!hence the profiling of the DVB standards, for example. The aim is to enable operators to cherry-pick, should this be a real requirement!although naturally, what any standards body would prefer is an operator choose to buy-in to the complete standards model.

What about open Internet TV? This is the question on the collective lips of the industry. Will open Internet TV take over from IPTV? If so, when? Or is there a niche for both? Experts will have their differing view!sometimes fuelled more by emotion than a real insight into the prospects.

Either way, standards will continue to be important. The role of standards in IPTV is assured in the long term, especially as the offerings are becoming more and more complex. Exactly how the standards will apply to open Internet TV is yet unclear. Standards bodies need to hedge their bets by concentrating on modularity and maintaining a rigorous approach that addresses the requirements of both sectors.

The job's not easy, but it would be a shame to develop standards for IPTV that are unusable in the Internet TV industry.

- Peter MacAvock
Executive Director, DVB Project

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