A Guide To Debunking the IPTV Hype

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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 commingling voice and data services with video services. It’s also fair game for all video incumbents.

In the end, the IPTV cant 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.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com.

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