April 3, 2009

IPTV for Corporations

By TV Explore
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Corporations and SMEs in Pakistan seem to be looking forward to collaboration and enterprise information sharing, largely due to the value addition that these collaboration systems can provide to the said organizations. Information sharing, alerts, notifications, central storage and access to important data in its traditional form are some of the benefits, but, there is one area in Enterprise Collaboration that is missing: the multimedia experience!

Yes, the dissemination of information through audio and video channels within an organization adds a lot to workforce efficiency and adherence to the company’s vision. With IP infrastructure already there in these organizations, the best solution to enterprise level information sharing is IPTV. Imagine a software house complex with TV screens all across and breaking news coming in: “Our competition misses project deadline! $50,000 penalty imposed!” What impact that would have and with that power, imagine how quickly the workforce can be mobilized!

But before getting into the IPTV scenario for enterprises and corporations, let’s first have a look at some facts and figures for IPTV.

TV Goes IP
Perhaps the most successful entry in the global IPTV industry took place back in 2005. Jump TV took the world by storm. A Canadian company with a 3 person team, Jump TV had 22 TV stations online at the time. Today, with more than 300 channels from more than 80 countries and 10,000 live sports events each year from over 175 teams and leagues, Jump TV offers a global audience the ability to stay connected to their favorite news, sports and entertainment content regardless of where they are in the world. A lot of the local channel owners also realized the benefit of global reach as early as 2005 and a few initiated broadcast through Jump TV through a standard subscription model. These included AAJ TV, TV One, HUM TV, and KTN. Popular news channel Geo made its entry only after the November 3rd Emergency while DAWN News went live over Internet somewhere in December 2007. The channels that broadcast over IP now are almost all free.

The concept of IPTV and its deployment have evolved over time. With the benefit of hindsight, we can divide the evolution period into three phases.

In 2004-2005, the focus was on initial network and service layer infrastructure. Very few controlled services were rolled out and there were only the basic offerings. The subscriber scale was very small and that too, mostly originating from the West. By 2006, the service became somewhat stable.

The second phase would probably be in 2006-2007 where there was a great deal of focus on service assurance and QoE (Quality of Experience) for existing subscribers. New services such as High Definition Video and Video on Demand were introduced. The subscriber scale also grew geometrically and global players jumped into the industry.

The third phase for final stabilization of IPTV industry is considered to be 2008 to 2010. The introduction of integrated services and the ability to reach a large number of subscribers are targets for this phase.

Defining IPTV
What exactly is IPTV and how does it differ from regular satellite TV? As the name suggests, IPTV is digital television delivered over an IP network. The receiving end might be a PC, laptop or a set-top box connected to a TV set via S-Video or A/V cables. Because it’s all on the same platform, IPTV removes the need for separate cabling for TV and can be bundled with Internet and IP telephony. It is this bundling that is called ‘Triple Play’.

IPTV is generally funded and pushed by large telecom providers who have the objective of creating a competitive replacement product for digital cable and satellite services. Just to make it clear, Internet Television is not IPTV. Both are entirely different in terms of content production and distribution. Internet Television is an open, evolving framework in which a very large number of small and medium-sized video producers contribute highly innovative niche content. YouTube and Meta Café are examples of this category.

Going into some technical classification, IPTV has either a multi-cast stream, as in live transmission, or uni-cast stream in case of Video on Demand (VOD).

Video content was previously compressed using MPEG-2 codec, but now MPEG-4 has become the defunct standard for improved quality. Certain other protocols such as IGMP Version 2 and Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) are also there. For viewers who cannot tie themselves to broadcast schedule of a TV station, NPVR serves them. Network Based Personal Video Recorder (NPVR) is a consumer service that allows viewers to time-shift the schedule of their favorite stations, as well as view recorded programs with pause, forward and rewind functions.

Distribution Channels
For the distribution of IPTV, there are various platforms available, each having its own benefits and drawbacks. Most of the popular providers use Windows Media Encoders and Windows Media Servers for streaming live audio and video, but there are platform limitations. The stream will not work, for example on a Linux and Mac system. This is one of the biggest drawbacks that Jump TV has at the moment.
Other streaming encoders include Flash Media Server along with a number of Open Source servers that stream the final result in Flash format. The biggest advantage that Flash streaming has that it is platform independent and works seamlessly on Windows, Linux, Mac and even on mobile phones. A third popular option is Real Player streaming, which has a good reputation amongst consumers, as the result is stable and adjusts itself according to the speed of the client.
Another interesting model for TV distribution over IP is Joost TV, pronounced “juiced”. From the founders of Skype and Kazaa, Joost is an interactive system for distributing shows and other forms of video using peer-to-peer technology without the need for a central server for content delivery. The Joost software is based on P2PTV technology and is intended to deliver near-TV quality content.
The software also has overlay widgets for multi-user chatting, ratings for programs and discussion forums that make the TV experience interactive. Currently the software is in beta stage and still in an evolutionary process. Microsoft’s version for IPTV is Microsoft MediaRoom, which uses multicast architecture intended for use in a set-top box connected to a TV, provides on-demand as well as live streaming content to users over an IP network. The software is slated to be ported for the XBox 360 platform soon.

IPTV in Pakistan
If we look at the scenario in Pakistan, PTCL along with partners Irdeto and Huawei Technologies, has started an end-to-end IPTV solution called PTCL SmartTV. Smart TV provides advanced features and services that are not possible with traditional broadcast television systems. These advanced features include Time Shifted Television, Parental Control, Electronic Program Guides (EPG), Global Television Channels, Video on Demand (VoD) and Near Video on Demand (NVoD).
WorldCall Broadband offers VOD through IPTV. A nominal per-month cost, WorldCall provides IPTV and VOD services through set-top boxes connected to client’s TV over their high-speed fiber network. Wateen also has one in pipeline and has listed IPTV as a future product on its website.

Few other local adventures for IPTV have been reported in areas such as PECHS and Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi. Internet cable providers have started distributing custom made software that uses embedded Windows Media Player, and it provides access to popular news and entertainment channels plastered with advertisements. They charge a nominal fee for this ‘extra’ service they provide, though it is illegal to do so without a license as per PEMRA regulations.

From a user experience, cable and satellite TV providers have set the bar extremely high in terms of quality and availability but that is not the case with IPTV, especially in Pakistan. It is all about broadband availability and affordability and till now Pakistan has lagged behind miserably on this. There are few delivery challenges that need to be considered. First and foremost, the provider needs to ensure that it provides an “always on” service, as the user compares IPTV performance with current cable and satellite TV. Next, network architecture and associated capacity planning are critical to optimize service-delivery cost, address multi-dimensional scalability, and provide guarantees for QoE. Managing network congestion and network capacity planning go hand in hand and are essential to avoid resource contention and clear the delivery channels.

Then there are additional service delivery challenges for IPTV service providers. Among them are regulatory issues, franchise requirements, working with local permitting agencies, vast and unique content rights, lack of industry standards, and the integration of multiple IPTV hardware with software service-delivery components.

The user experience for consumer level IPTV is predominantly based on the Internet infrastructure of Pakistan, but, if corporations wish to use IPTV as knowledge dissemination mediums within their organizations, all these issues become irrelevant. They already have the state-of-the-art Gigabyte infrastructure in place. DV quality video requires 3.8 Mbps bandwidth at the receiving end, which is not a problem for intranets to handle. However, NLBs and SANs must be in place to extract quality from the streaming servers. The distribution of IPTV can be integrated with Enterprise Level Collaboration Solutions such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server and IBM Lotus Notes, which can certainly give more power to C level executives.
Other than the technical implementation, the most important element to focus on is content. A dedicated department for Video Programming and Content Management for the enterprise is a must.
The technical exploration and entrepreneurial approach to this evolving industry is where market players need to focus on. With declining internet connectivity costs and an improving infrastructure in Pakistan, the dream of IPTV can finally be realized. For IPTV to really work, serious willingness to actually make this possible needs to take place at the top management. It is only once the decision takes place that the technical options can be chalked out. Few experiments and learning from international providers would help get the process going.

IPTV today is where the Internet was in the mid-’90s – and it is poised to take off. Penetrating into a global population regardless of a physical geographical boundary based on a limited spectrum is not a dream. IPTV promises to re-energize the telecom business model and revolutionize the traditional TV business as we know it.

Written by: Ahmed Tamjid Aijazi, CIO Pakistan.

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