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It’s March Madness Time and I Want My IPTV!

Dan Campbell

It's that time of year again, when men and women, boys and girls, friends and foes gather together for the ritualistic viewing of basketball, basketball and more basketball. Office pools abound as HR departments sit on edge, afraid that they may be turning a blind eye to illegal gambling. As games play out during the workday, the number of staff calling in sick or "working from home" seems to be at flu-like levels. Bosses fret over their staff's early departure and late return from a long lunch to catch the early rounds at a local TV and fan-filled restaurant. Many bosses join them. Network administrators sweat when they see network traffic spike as staff not able to make the long "lunch" find websites streaming the games and highlights. Security administrators begrudgingly configure their content filters to block ESPN and other websites to prevent staff from constantly checking scores and updating their pools.

March Madness at its finest.

(My apologies to those not familiar with the term. "March Madness" is a nickname for a period in March when the college basketball playoffs take place, and there are about 800 games broadcast all day on multiple TV channels.)

Back in the days before a full time job became necessary, I used to bring the smaller kitchen or bedroom TVs to the family room so I could view 2 or 3 games on separate channels at the same. (The same ritual took place on New Year's Day for Bowl games, but at least that was just one day!) It wasn't too bad. You could watch the ACC tournament on one channel and the Big East on the other. Then picture-in-picture (PIP) came along, which was OK although the second picture was not always big enough to get a good view of the second game even on your (massive!) 32" TV. And sometimes your cable set top box (STB) configuration did not allow for easy PIP setup. Along came the giant flat screen which not only allows for PIP with reasonable screen sizes but some TVs allow for you to adjust both picture sizes, creating two roughly 27" TVs on the same 50" plasma. Two cable boxes or a cable box and external antenna combo give you a nice split screen. Now you can do it in HD.

We're almost there.

IPTV is on the horizon. Maybe I watch too much basketball, but the first thing I pictured was turning my flat screen into a big PC-like monitor with multiple windows showing several games, and perhaps even checking email and trying to do a bit work in another (admittedly much smaller) window. You could drag and drop, expand or shrink the games to whatever size you wanted just like you do on a PC with applications. Since the source video could come from different geographical regions in the country, you could catch the NCAA game they are showing in your local region while also watching another game from another region. Now this would be great!

(Even if you aren't a basketball fan, you could apply the same idea to virtually any TV channel / movie / web / video game scenario.)

For some, IPTV is a reality. But for the most part deployments are limited. The main business-related driver for IPTV is that it will allow voice or broadband Internet access providers the ability to also offer TV service in "triple-play" fashion. But unless there are lower prices, better service or new features (see above!), IPTV is faced with many challenges.

Just going up against legacy video that has been in every home (and almost every room) for decades is daunting enough. Quality and availability expectations are sky high, not just from subscribers but also from content providers and advertisers who pay big money for those vital 30 seconds in between timeouts. But there are technological challenges as well.

IPTV is faced with delivering multiple channels simultaneously to the same home over a broadband infrastructure that may barely allow for a single standard definition (SD) channel. ADSL2+, VDSL2 and other broadband breakthroughs are occurring, increasing bandwidth and promising to overcome the bottleneck. Still, even Verizon has chosen to offer its TV service over its FiOS infrastructure (if you can get FiOS), while its DSL service (to my knowledge) remains traditional Internet access only.

High definition (HD) video is making huge strides and gaining immense popularity over conventional cable TV, complicating the matter even further for IPTV. Even when compressed via MPEG-4 to 1.5-2.5Mbps per channel, a single jitterless stream is still a lot to get through today's broadband pipes. Multiple simultaneous HD channels is even harder. Alas, will the last mile problem ever be solved or will content continue to stay a few steps ahead?

Further complications arise as many broadband services are not multicast-enabled. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) or cable broadband providers must configure multicast into their network. It's not terribly difficult, but things like sparse and dense mode Protocol Independent Multicast (PIM-SM and PIM-DM respectively), Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP) and the process of acquiring public multicast addresses or developing a GLOP scheme are not everyday things for most network administrators. There is a learning curve.

Basic network upgrades may also be needed. Quality of Service (QoS) overlays may be required to ensure broadcast (well, multicast) video is guaranteed jitter-free delivery over a broadband network that is also serving email, web surfing, VoIP and those pesky file sharing applications. Upgrading DSL Access Multiplexors (DSLAM) to support multicast by virtue of IGMP snooping is also desirable as it not only reduces traffic but it speeds up the multicast processes that affect channel changing, otherwise known as the "channel latency" issue.

Us couch potatoes are used to quick clicking between channels to catch an update on one game while the other is at a commercial. In conventional TV, tuning to a different frequency is quick. But in IPTV, your set top box is an IP system that must send multicast leave and join messages upstream to change from one channel (multicast stream) to another. The latency for the process to complete can depend on network traffic, processing, and the distance and hops from your home to the multicast rendezvous point. Jumping back and forth between two channels is not so bad, but true channel surfing using the up or down arrow key can get a little hairy.

So the challenges are there and progress is slow. But there is great promise. For now it looks like IPTV is trying to make its breakthrough by first looking for the layup before trying to bury a 3, working out the kinks, waiting patiently for broadband service to catch up, and delivering familiar video service that a competitive video provider could offer as an alternative to incumbent cable providers.

So it looks like my multi-frame multi-game dream will have to wait. For now.

I guess I'd better go get that second cable box set up and ready to go. Game on.

By Dan Campbell, President, Millennia Systems, Inc.
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