A Guide To Debunking the IPTV Hype
by Leslie Ellis // August 22 2005
By the looks of recent mainstream media accounts, the cable, broadcast and satellite industries are gasping their last breaths. The poison pill is coming, it’s going to taste awful and every known video contender is going to die — except the telcos, because they’re cooking up that savior of an antidote, known as “IPTV.”
As of last week, a Google search on the “IPTV” acronym (short for “Internet-protocol television”) produced 1.2 million results. (“Broadband” elicited 66 million hits.) Much of it is what marketing people call “disruptive marketing,” or, substantial truth-stretching.
This week’s translation aims to unpack some of the IPTV presumptions that are molding consumer perceptions.
Technological Truth Telling
The intent is not to “kill IPTV,” because it isn’t a likely candidate for death. More, it’s an effort to impart a dose of technological truth, washed down with some relevant current events happening in the home team.
In no particular order:
Claim: “IPTV Is a Telco Thing.” This one tends to show up obliquely. It seems to waft from SBC Communications Inc. and one of its key suppliers, Microsoft Corp. The claim reflects the fact that so far, the telephone industry is the biggest proponent of sending television signals over the IP path, meaning their DSL lines.
Tech Truth: The world of IP — and its subsets, like IPTV — isn’t exclusive to anyone. You could engage in a defensible argument, right now, today, that the cable, broadcast and satellite industries all are capable of offering IPTV. Some already are.
Dave Fellows, chief technical officer of Comcast Corp., submits that his company will transmit over 1 billion streams of IP video this year. Time Warner Cable is running its full expanded basic lineup to select broadband Internet customers in San Diego.
The former is IP video almost to the house; the latter is IP video all the way to the house.
No Monopoly On Switching
Claim: “IPTV is Me TV.” Mike Quigley, president of Alcatel, wrote this one in a May, 2005 issue of Business Week, explaining that IPTV allows viewers to only receive what they’re interested in and not all channels.
Tech Truth: This implies the use of a switch. Switching is a bandwidth-conservation technique. It is not exclusive to the telephone companies.
Cablevision Systems Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner are all testing switched video, reasoning that people generally watch an average of 45 or so channels — out of the hundreds of channels offered.
Claim: “IPTV Will Save the Advertising Industry.” Fortune staked this one in its Aug. 8 edition, calling IPTV the angel that will lift advertising from the barrenness of an increasingly non-linear television world.
Tech Truth: Targeted advertising isn’t exclusive to IPTV. In cable tech talk, it slides in after DPI, or digital program insertion. Step one is to make it possible to splice digital material (including ads) into digital programs. Step two is to harness the inherently nodal architecture of contemporary cable systems to target clumps of 500 or so homes.
Apartments Vs. Suburbs
Paul Woidke, the tech guru at Comcast Spotlight, views it like this: Send the ad for the stackable washer/dryer to the node that covers the apartment building. Send the ad for the lawn mower to the node that covers the suburban subdivision.
So no, ads aren’t targeted to individual devices within a home. Not yet. But if this is a race, I’d bet on node-based targeting, at scale, before I’d bet on targeted advertising to individual devices in people’s homes, at scale.
Claim: “IPTV Makes TV a Two-Way Experience.” This gem also came from the Fortune piece. Specifically, it says: “IPTV transforms video content — movies, sitcoms, commercials — into digital files and makes TV a two way experience.”
Tech Truth: Last I checked, the digital video offerings from cable and satellite are — well — digital. Cable plant is inherently two-way.
To be fair, the writer was talking about running an instant-message exchange while watching TV, or programming your DVR from your phone. If she meant watching video on the PC, over the broadband connection, while sending an IM to a friend, that’s way on the product road map for cable providers.
Making TV appointments from your phone to your DVR is a little farther off in industrial parlance, it’s on the to-do list of PacketCable Multimedia 2.0 but it’s definitely there.
It’s Broadband Plumbing
The not-so-shocking conclusion is this: IPTV is a form of broadband plumbing for transporting video. It means sending digital video streams over the broadband data, or IP, passageway, to the DSL or cable modem. In the case of SBC, short of fiber-to-the-home, it’s the only path they have that’s fat enough for video.
Because it roots to the underlying technologies of the Internet, IPTV is naturally open to nifty, Internet-like features, like co-mingling voice and data services with video services. It’s also fair game for all video incumbents.
In the end, the IPTV can’t is equal parts tantalizing, frightening and incorrect. The real threat from telephone companies doing video isn’t their ability to do things that the home team can’t match. It’s that they’ll enter with what financial people call “disruptive pricing,” which ends in a zero-sum game for all.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
Coping With E911 Deadline: A Stunning Task, But Doable
by Leslie Ellis // August 08 2005
The five-alarm notice from the FCC on July 26 that cable operators must collect E911 acknowledgements from all voice-over-Internet protocol customers by August 29, or shut them off the next day, had settled into a heightened business-as-usual mentality by last week.
Reason: A triangulation of approaches will very likely work in tandem to get the Federal Communications Commission what it wants.
Here’s the short version of the situation: The FCC, which views the promotion of public safety as its primary role, doesn’t want any more citizens to die because the technology they used to dial 911 didn’t deliver.
What rattled the cable providers of VoIP about the new FCC deadline is this: From the birth of cable-delivered VoIP, all operators chose to color within the lines of traditional, facilities-based telephone providers. (“Facilities-based” means they own the network that serves you, just like the phone company, and the power company — and follow the same rules.) That means cable VoIP providers routinely included E911 connectivity in the construction of the service.
Other VoIP providers — Vonage Holdings Corp. always seems to get singled out, but there are others — have a trickier time of doing 911, because their service is useful to the nomadic. Pick a phone number (perhaps with a different area code than the one that covers your house), plug the box into the DSL or cable modem at your house, talk. Go to Atlanta on a trip, take the box, plug it into a broadband link, talk. Pay $25 a month, either way.
But if you’re in Atlanta, and you dial 911, how are they to know you’re not at home?
Before we go much further, a quick primer on the difference between 911 and E911. When Customer Jane dials 911, her call goes to what’s called a “PSAP,” or a “Public Safety Access Point.” There, the operator knows Jane’s phone number, and can ask her where she is.
When Customer Jane dials 911 from a phone attached to a system that’s outfitted for the “E” in E911 — “Enhanced” — her address pops up on the PSAP operator’s screen. They can send help even if Jane can’t speak.
But instances remain in which a person receiving VoIP service from a cable provider might run into 911 trouble — like when the power goes out. It’s true that most, if not all, E-MTA (embedded multimedia terminal adaptor) gear comes with a battery slot— but so do lots of other things in your house that you don’t always think about.
To follow the FCC’s logic, when you’re in a calamity serious enough to warrant a 911 call, you’re probably not thinking about where the batteries are.
Thus, the FCC wants every VoIP customer to know what’s what about E911. They want people to know repeatedly, like with a sticker in plain view. And they want 100% certainty that everybody knows by Aug. 29.
Those who don’t know are to get their VoIP service shut off. On Aug. 30.
That last part is what got people excited. Time Warner Cable is approaching 700,000 VoIP customers. Cablevision Systems is hooking them up like crazy. Cox is turning them up, as is Comcast, and Charter.
All in, a million or more people need to acknowledge the message they get from their cable VoIP provider — within the next 21 days of what’s already a heavy vacation month. Yeesh.
The FCC’s specific request is for “affirmative acknowledgement” of all VoIP customers. It’s a boldly vague term. It gave room for minds to cool, and consider the options.
Turns out there are at least three, maybe more, ways to go after the “affirmative acknowledgement.” That’s why people involved in the VoIP notification craziness last week were anxious, but confident, that they’ll get to 100% before the end-of-the-month deadline.
The first option is a direct mail piece, with a tear-off bingo card to mail back. Direct marketing aficionados says that even if a “sign here” card is so compelling, people trip over themselves in their haste to find a pen, the best one can hope for is a 20% response. Four percent is terrific. Two percent is normal.
The second option stems from the simple fact that almost all cable VoIP customers are also broadband Internet customers. That opens the door for an e-mail campaign, with a “click here” link to the acknowledgement. Or, a splash screen that “pushes” broadband customers to the acknowledgement page.
Third is the use of an in-house or outsourced IVR (interactive voice response) function. Maybe you pick up the phone, and there’s a message to dial this number. Or maybe you pick up the phone and are literally diverted to an operator, who explains the situation, and collects your acknowledgement.
Even with three handy tools, getting to 100% in customer acknowledgements is still a tall task, rammed on top of all the other tall tasks systems staffers are working on.
But on the scale of grimaces, this one is more like a sharp kick in the shin than, say, having to cut off the @Home Network in a week, or having to switch billing systems. It’s a huge bruise, but you can still walk.
The bad news is, you have to do it. The FCC is forming a task force for enforcement.
The good news is that everyone working on it seems more stunned by the craziness of the ask than by the hardship of the task.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.