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IPTV vs IPTV+RF

Paul Budde

The further we move into discussions about the implementation of national broadband networks the more issues crop up that need to be discussed in this context.

One topic that is currently getting a great deal of attention is the need (or not) for an RF video layer to be deployed over the fibre network. Both business and technical elements are involved in this, but let's start with some of the business elements.

RF Video over FttH

The reason some people are arguing for inclusion of the RF layer onto the Fiber to the Home (FttH) is that it allows TV to be delivered over the network separately from the IP-based services. Indeed RF video is already being deployed in some fibre networks to deliver broadcasting services over fibre networks.

It is used in most greenfield rollouts. These deployments were too small to warrant the direct participation of the pay TV operators, and so, in order to facilitate a triple play model, RF is used to deliver this service. These deployments will still continue for some time to come, until the NBN start reaching mass market penetration.

However the RF video addition to the FttH network will add an extra $100 to $150 per connection (ONT and backbone network). Current HFC networks could give some support but beyond these networks an RF backbone will be required. If this layer is added to the full NBN these costs could quickly add up to $1 billion.

The question that then needs to be asked is whether it is necessary to spend this extra money. Free-to-air TV is currently widely available, if not via the terrestrial network then via satellite. As we speak some very large investments are taking place to upgrade this network to digital TV, so for this purpose one could argue there is no need to facilitate free-to-ait TVover the FttH network.

The extra RF layer will not provide broadcasters with a defence mechanism against those companies that will try to compete with them in the video entertainment space. While RF does provide the broadcasters with a walled garden solution the question is how long can walled garden deployments survive now that IPTV is so widely available? Broadcasters are facing a similar threat to the one presently being faced by newspaper publishers because of the Internet.

Also, RF will not work where a combination of fibre- and copper-based networks is deployed in the transition period from the current broadband networks to FttH. It cannot be deployed over copper-based networks.

The plus side of RF-video (in addition to IPTV and on-demand) is that it is a cheap and reliable method of distribution that fits nicely with existing TV sets and the existing internal wiring in residences. It is excellent for real-time events (like sports and news) which attract a large percentage of viewers simultaneously.

IPTV

All FttH networks are based on the IP technology and therefore all are able to deliver video over IP (IPTV) without the need for an extra RF layer being added to the infrastructure; furthermore, thanks to the enormous explosion of video-based broadband services, the IP technology has improved significantly over recent years.

Verizon's FIOS service in the USA is often used to support the case for the deployment of the RF layer, but since that company launched its service the IP technology has become the major technology for video services such as Hulu, iView, etc, and from a technical perspective RF is no longer necessary.

If they wish, cable and pay TV operators can use the FttH network to deliver their services. There is no need for an RF overlay to do this, so if there is an argument in favour of RF over FttH it is most likely a short-term proposition.

And so it may be that in the end IP-based video will dominate, but in the meantime RF-video may attract customers to sign up for the service. The question then — in Australia for example — is whether it is worth the extra $1 billion in infrastructure investment.

Set-top boxes

This discussion also brings us to the issue of set top boxes — at the moment each of these services (cable, satellite, IPTV, DTV) require a different box.

Deploying RF over FttH means that existing TVs and digital TV set-top boxes can be used. A new IPTV set-top box would cost the user an extra $300 and that might be unacceptable at this stage.

In order to avoid a situation where people need to buy a battery of set-top boxes the FCC in the USA is now proposing that all set-top boxes should be capable of accepting signals from different networks, whether run by pay TV, satellite, cable TV or telcos.

Interestingly, a similar policy was envisaged by the Australian Labor Government back around 1995, but this policy was never implemented; the USA Congress also had a similar vision back in 1996.

Such a policy would, of course, also greatly improve the business case for trans-sector services, as all of these devices should then also be made ready to connect to healthcare monitoring and smart meter services. Such a device would end up in the domain of the competitive consumer goods industry and would therefore stimulate more innovation and much more competitive pricing.

Bright future for digital TV

This will also put the TV set right in the middle of this trans-sector revolution.

Broadcast media can also be used to deliver IP packets regardless of content. It is a very efficient way to deliver the same product to a large number of receivers. Anything that can be digitised and packaged can be delivered this way; if a subset of TV sets are to receive it, encrypt and distribute the key only to those 'subscribing' to the content. It could be software, text, data, audio, video, etc. This is a potential new service that any broadcaster could consider offering.

It could perhaps also place digital TV suddenly in the realm of the NBN, where it could play a critical role in delivering services to (low density) regional areas. IP over FtA digital TV is possible, and, while the technology is still in its early stages, it could well prove to be a major trump card. The CSIRO is currently conducting research in this area.

In the UK Freeview has indicated that ethernet is already built into the British Digital TV specifications the company is planning to offer IPTV services via this platform.

By the time both FttH and DTV are fully deployed we will begin to see if and where these technologies can complement each other. Also by that time we will have seen the full impact of HDTV on these technologies and this will drive the developments there. If it turns out that the role for DTV has diminished, so be it. Having delivered a good return during its economic lifetime that investment will, by then, have been written off.

The reality is also that these types of services generally tend to have a much longer life-cycle than most people assume (just look at the life cycle of analogue TV), and they constitute a source of dissatisfaction if not available.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication – Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located hereVisit Page
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