Monthly Archives: March 2009

IPTV World Forum: AT&T U-verse and the multi-room, multi-screen, networked future

Day Two of the IPTV World Forum began for Connected TV with a presentation from Griff Parry, director of on-demand at BSkyB, who (as Sky executives are always prone to at such events) ended his remarks by playing the audience a glossy promotional video. This showed how a typical multi-screen Sky household in 2012 might be consuming the pay-TV operator’s content.

Parry cautioned that some of the functionalities the promo displayed – which included amongst other features personalised EPGs for each family member, and the ability to pause a PVR-recorded programme in one room and pick it up from the same point in another – would not necessarily be available within a three-year time-frame, if at all.

Interesting, then, to contrast this take on the future from one of Europe’s leading TV technology innovators with a presentation to analysts at the end of the day from Franz Kurath, AT&T’s executive director of broadband content and converged services. This showed, among other things, that the ability to swap PVR content mid-play between different TV sets – a relatively distant possibility, according to the Sky presentation – was already a reality for US customers, through AT&T’s Microsoft Mediaroom-powered U-verse IPTV platform.

In addition, U-verse’s Total Home DVR allows up to 5 HD streams to be viewed simultaneously, said Kurath – two being consumed live, with three being streamed off the Total Home DVR. This box acts as the master, with standard U-verse receivers attached to other TV sets acting as ‘slaves’ – although the user experience on each TV set remains identical. The same recorded show can also be accessed, played back and controlled independently on up to 4 separate TV sets.

Such technology does not come cheap, of course. As Connected TV noted in a previous post, AT&T has twice had to scale back the U-verse project, increasing its spend on the rollout (to close to $5bn) while reducing its coverage. And though U-verse now has more than 1m subscribers enjoying its advanced features, AT&T admitted in its Q4 08 results that it now expects to reach its previously announced target of 30m homes passed, in 2011 – a year later than originally planned. Currently, it’s passing 17m.

Will the investment have been worth it? AT&T’s corporate line is vague, stating that it expects “U-verse services to become a multi-billion-dollar revenue opportunity over the next few years,” a phrase Kurath repeated almost word-for-word last night.

Certainly, the service appears to work well. Kurath noted that J.D. Power had accorded it the highest customer satisfaction levels for video service in those regions where it was available, and it has already received a number of awards – including 2009 Consumer Communications Service Product of the Year from Frost & Sullivan.

The comparison between BSkyB tomorrow and AT&T today is a little invidious, perhaps. AT&T enjoys late-mover advantage, allowing it to benefit from the latest technologies. BSkyB is much more constrained in what it is able to achieve given that it needs to address a legacy platform dating back to 1998, and not only a less mature broadband and networked home environment, but a less advanced HDTV one, too.

Another key difference, arguably, is that BSkyB is a dominant pay-TV operator. AT&T is not, competing against established digital satellite players in the form of DirecTV and Dish Network on the one hand and cable incumbents such as Comcast on the other. So as challenger AT&T needs state-of-the-art feature-sets such as those offered by the U-verse Total Home DVR to differentiate itself from the competition.

BSkyB can afford to be a little more relaxed, perhaps: neither Virgin Media’s cable platform nor BT Vision are about to offer such a rich multi-room feature-set any time soon.

(Declaration of interest: Microsoft Mediaroom sponsors the Connected TV blog)

IPTV World Forum: ANT Software demos Amazon TV shopping through STB IP port

Over a decade ago, I remember reviewing the interactive shopping service BSkyB offered its subscribers when it launched what was then called its Open… service. The Sky box had (and still does) an analogue dial-up modem which, when I wanted to try browsing the Somerfield supermarket shelves, spent a good 15 minutes connecting and (apparently) attempting to download the entire product range via the phone-line. I was underwhelmed.

I recalled this experience when I visited ANT Software’s stand at the IPTV Forum today and saw a demonstration of an interactive TV application which allowed the user to buy a DVD or a book from Amazon related to the channel or programme being viewed. The contrast, a decade on, was staggering – and provided a convincing example of at least one way the Ethernet port now being added to many broadcast digital TV set-top boxes could eventually be monetised.

ANT’s application – in this particular emulation – works like this. First, the user has to link his or her Amazon account to the service, and assign a PIN to the TV application. The Amazon application subsequently signals to the user when it is available for a particular channel or programme, and – when the action is paused – an Amazon-branded window is automatically called up showing a range of books or DVDs related to that content. These can then be purchased by navigating to the relevant title and entering a PIN at the point of sale. Amazon’s back-office then does the rest, and the title is delivered to the user’s home in the normal way.

In the example I was shown, the Nascar racing channel was the one being streamed and then paused, so Nascar-related books and DVDs were displayed. Richard Baker, ANT’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, who demonstrated the concept to me, noted that the application could in principle be tied to any piece of EPG meta-data associated with the content being viewed: for instance, if watching a movie where the meta-data contained the actors’ names, the Amazon window might show relevant biographical titles or DVDs they had starred in.

Baker also noted that the ‘pause’ trigger was just one idea. Pressing ‘info’ or perhaps the red button on a remote control could be used instead.

The Amazon application – believed to be the first time the online book-store has been linked to TV in this way – is just one of a suite of multimedia services supported by the latest version of ANT’s Galio Suite under its new ‘IP Active’ banner. The idea is to enable new services on the IP port which extend and go beyond the TV environment. The platform uses familiar W3C standards-based Javascript, HTML and CSS elements and open media APIs, and allows access to a wide variety of applications including an online photo album (which allows users to view and interact with photos uploaded to a site such as Flickr or Snapfish), and online games (such as those aggregated by Accedo Broadband).

A number of things are significant about ANT’s approach. First, the broadband link’s speed is being exploited to offer more than just over-the-top video – one of the major applications being touted for the IP port at this year’s Forum event. Second, while retaining Amazon’s distinctive branding, this is clearly a TV-tailored version of the online book-store, which respects the constraints of a window within the TV display. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the call-to-action is contextual.

One of the major misconceptions behind Open… was the assumption that allowing impulse purchases via the TV screen was a killer app in itself. This was largely based on a misinterpretation of the success of impulse pay-per-view into the US cable market, where buy-rates shot up as soon as it became possible to purchase movies through the remote control instead of ordering them over the phone. What was forgotten (or ignored) was that a pay-per-view purchase is necessarily contextual: the consumer is buying video through a device which is optimised for … displaying and promoting video. That does not (necessarily) apply to non-video-related products.

Those lessons were learnt by Sky some time ago – but the technology, in terms of the power of the set-top box, learnings about the design of user interfaces, and the speed of Internet connections, has taken a decade to catch up.

ANT is by no means the only company exploiting this fact – but it was encouraging to see an interactive TV shopping application that, for once, looked as if it meant business.

(NB in the initial version of this post, I inadvertently promoted Richard Baker to CEO. ANT’s CEO is, of course, Simon Woodward. Apologies)

Ofcom postpones advice to ITU recommending cancellation of ICO S-Band assignments

US satellite operator ICO’s furious reaction to Ofcom’s decision to advise the ITU to cancel its S-Band assignments (see here) has resulted in the UK regulator backing off – if only for the moment.

Yesterday, Ofcom posted a note on its site saying that ICO had followed up with a letter to the regulator referring to its right to seek a judicial review of the decision.

“In light of this Ofcom considers that it is appropriate for it to refrain from writing to the ITU before the time period for ICO to apply for a judicial review expires, which is 23 May 2009,” its statement ran.

However, the damage to ICO’s EU S-Band bid may already have been done – if the EU was taking ICO’s bid seriously in the first place. There is widespread industry speculation that the EU is poised to announce that the pan-European S-Band award will go jointly to Solaris Mobile and Inmarsat.

Informa: IPTV nudges 20m global homes as fibre approaches 50m

Ahead of next week’s IPTV World Forum in London, organizer Informa Telecoms & Media has announced the results of its latest research into broadband and multi-channel TV subscription numbers, headlining the fact that FTTx (fibre) subscriptions are approaching 50m, with IPTV nudging 20m.

According to research Informa will conclude this month, global fixed broadband subscriptions stood at 422 million at the end of 2008, adding nearly 68 million subscriptions in the year and 16 million in the final quarter.

The biggest access technology remains DSL (65% of the total), but FTTx (11%) registered its biggest in year gain to date, adding over 11 million subscriptions – almost exactly the same number as cable broadband (21%).

The growth of FTTx is in part explained by robust growth in Asia-Pacific, says Informa: the region added 20% more subscriptions in 2008 than in 2007. In addition, nine of the world’s 10 largest FTTx operators are in the region.

Western Europe, meanwhile, has seen broadband growth stagnate, as all but five of its 30 countries now exceed a household penetration level of 50% and 20 countries enjoy penetration of over 60%.China, where broadband subscriptions grew by 21% over 2008 to reach 82 million subscriptions, passed the USA mid-year to become the world’s largest fixed broadband market, though it still has a household penetration level of below 20%.

Significantly, of the four main multichannel TV platforms, IPTV and digital terrestrial (DTT) are increasing their share of the market and now hold 10% and 3 30% of the global market, respectively.

The research, based on a continuous programme of research covering 730 fixed broadband (xDSL, cable broadband, FTTx, LAN, satellite and fixed wireless) operators in 160 countries and nearly 100 IPTV operators in 50 countries, will be presented in an opening address at the IPTV World Forum at Olympia, London, next week.

Farncombe Technology, which hosts this blog, will be conducting an IPTV Masterclass on IPTV Deployment in association with the Forum.

TDG: network-connected video platforms in virtually all broadband homes by 2020

A new report from Dallas-based research firm The Diffusion Group (TDG) concludes that it is ‘inevitable’ that by 2020, virtually every broadband-enabled home will have a multitude of network-connected video platforms.

By that date, TDG predicts that the total number of ‘non-portable network-enabled video nodes’ within global homes will reach 3.6 billion.

TDG bases its assertion on its estimates for global broadband penetration, which predict that the number of global broadband households will near 440 million by 2010 and top 1.2 billion by 2030. During that time, the number of broadband-enabled home networks will grow from 150 million in 2010 (34% of broadband homes) to more than 1.0 billion in 2030 (83% of broadband homes).

According to author Dr. Predrag Filipovic, video delivery over the Internet is a primary part of this future. In the short term, Filipovic says these trends will be driven by two major shifts in industry behavior:

  • Consumer electronic vendors will embed Internet support and IP video sub-systems into their mainstream platforms, meaning even average consumers will be buying new CE platforms with native Internet support, and
  • Incumbent TV providers will incorporate walled-garden broadband video applications and services into their Pay TV experience, meaning set-top boxes will be required to support broadband connectivity.

Filipovic also notes that by 2020, more than 1.6 billion households around the world will have access to some form of home video service, with Asia enjoying the most rapid growth. These service additions will in many cases be broadband-based or hybrid in nature. Given these factors, TDG expects the number of ‘non-portable network-enabled video nodes’ within global homes will reach 3.6 billion by 2020 and top five billion by 2030.

What is notable about the report, in Connected TV’s view, is its lengthy time-scale, reflecting a healthy scepticism about how long the IP-related video trends we are currently seeing bubbling to the surface will take to become main-stream.

It is interesting to read it in conjunction with an entirely different piece of UK-based research commissioned by the UK regulator Ofcom last year from consultants Analysys Mason, which has only just been published.

This sought to look at the impact network congestion could have on the ability to provide high-quality video services over the Internet in the UK, and what regulatory measures might be required to alleviate such problems.

Analysys Mason’s most extreme future demand scenario, which assumes that almost all TV is online and on-demand, sees total broadband traffic per household per month in the UK growing from 5.6GBytes to about 260GBytes by 2018. It adds that “the majority of this growth will come from online video services that are streamed directly to the consumer.”

More conservative (and more likely) scenarios put traffic per household per month at around 140GBytes by 2018, but still an eye-watering increase.

Analysys Mason appears to be confident that next-generation access deployment in the UK will keep step with this increase, and does not recommend that Ofcom take any immediate action.

But Connected TV wonders whether this may not be a bit optimistic, given the onward march of HDTV and the likelihood that by 2018 future broadband video homes might well require multiple simultaneous HD streams to different TVs in the home.