The technical underpinnings of Internet protocol TV allow for completely personalized video services. Internet-based networks, after all, are designed to distribute data in a many-to-many fashion.
But in practice, deploying such individualized services has huge implications for IPTV providers, which will need additional network equipment to deliver a unique video stream tailored to each subscriber. A new category of “edge” equipment is emerging to help scale up to meet the demand, with systems for caching, storing, streaming and splicing video assets.
“The way to differentiate yourself is through personalized TV services,” said Paul Crann, BigBand Networks vice president and general manager of the vendor's Media Services Platform. “But that will always be against the reality of bandwidth constraints.”
Of course, one of the most sought-after personalized TV applications is targeted advertising, to insert spots matched up with a viewers' demographic profile and potentially their hobbies and interests.
“A lot of the opportunity is advertising — everyone is trying to figure out how to make more money out of their IPTV environment,” said RGB Networks vice president of product marketing Ramin Farassat.
And telcos are looking to roll out a fully targeted ad environment from the get-go, Farassat said.
“The telecom operators are trying to bypass the problem encountered by the cable operators,” which started with large geographic zones and are now trying to drill down to the set-top level, he said.
Besides advertising, personalized TV services can be used to drive video-on-demand viewing and deliver more value to subscribers by presenting content they'll be interested in.
“As the tools and the programming guides get more mature, and as these richer programming environments become available, providers definitely want to deliver content that is more relevant,” said Rob Malnati, senior manager of software product marketing in Motorola's Broadband Solutions Group.
Even before addressable advertising and other personalized TV features take root, IPTV operators have a need to increase the scalability and reliability of their video services, BigBand's Crann said. The initial return on investment for edge video-processing deployments is in “getting the service more operationally efficient.”
The issue, he said, is that you can't monitor video quality just by examining the IP layer: “It's not enough to monitor packet loss. You need knowledge of the actual end user's experience.” For example, a provider should be able to optimize video bit rates based on current network conditions, Crann said.
Scaling up the edge delivery systems for IPTV is even more important given the growing amount of high-definition programming customers expect to be able to access, according to Sue White, marketing director in Alcatel-Lucent's fixed access division. MPEG-4 video is more sensitive to visual errors on the TV screen than the older MPEG-2 format, so having an infrastructure that can correct video problems is crucial, she said.
Alcatel-Lucent, whose IPTV customers include AT&T in the United States, recently unveiled version 2.0 of its Triple Play Services Delivery Architecture. Under that broad umbrella are several different products that the company said will provide a foundation for service providers to deliver greater personalization and interactivity.
The main idea is that the networking infrastructure needs to become more content-aware to be able to deliver advanced services, White said.
“In the past, the role of the network was to make sure you prioritized video content as opposed to data,” she said. “But now that the video content has grown, it's not just a matter of being able to prioritize video … you have to get involved in delivering the content.”
Alcatel-Lucent products that fit into this category include content-caching systems and video-retransmission equipment.
At the same time, telco TV operators don't necessarily want to put all their eggs in one basket.
“We're seeing a reluctance from operators to put everything in one box,” Harmonic director of telco solutions Thierry Fautier said. “Given the IPTV ecosystem today, you can't fit a Microsoft server into a Cisco router.”
For the foreseeable future, Fautier said, telcos will likely use special-purpose equipment that performs video splicing and rate-shaping at the edge of the network.
Meanwhile, cable operators also are looking to add the same kinds of video-processing capabilities closer to the subscriber as they look at targeted-advertising initiatives.
“We have interest from the telecom operators, but we're also getting interest from cable providers,” RGB's Farassat said about his company's edge video-processing platform. “They're saying their next-generation architecture will require thousands of streams.”