IPTV Makes Channel Surfing More Like Web Surfing

Oct. 9, 2008
Internet Protocol TV looks to put a sizable dent into cable TV's domination over the television-delivery marketplace.

How do you watch television? Nearly 70% of us get our TV via one of the major cable providers. Satellite has carved out a good niche and grabs more than 20% of that market. If it’s strictly over the air, then hold your hand up as one of the 15% who still claim that as their means of reception. (That will change, as analog TV transmission expires on February 17, 2009.)

Now the dawn of Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) is changing the landscape even further. AT&T, Verizon, and other telecommunications (phone) companies (telcos) are making a huge effort to bring TV to the Internet and over fiber. There are some tremendous benefits to IPTV. However, some interesting technical and business challenges must be dealt with, not to mention the fact that cable is fighting back.

“What if any new benefits does IPTV bring over cable?” asks Peter Percosan, Texas Instruments’ director of broadband strategy. The IPTV services are essentially at parity with the cable companies even though their content offerings are still a bit below what the premier cable companies offer. The main difference is the pricing advantage that IPTV has over cable. It remains to be seen how long that lasts, though, even as content grows. The telcos need some clear, distinguishing factor to help them gain a stronger foothold in the pay-TV business. According to Mike Coward, CTO of Continuous Computing, two benefits could make the difference.

First, in IPTV, each subscriber gets a different video/audio stream that’s specifically just what that subscriber has selected with the remote control. All of the content is sent via fiber to the neighborhood DSLAMs (digital subscriber line access multiplexers). At this point, the customer’s selected channel is picked out and sent to the set-top box (STB). Cable customers always get all of the content selected by the STB consumer. Thus, telcos have the opportunity to do targeted marketing and advertising, which isn’t possible with cable.

Second, IPTV subscribers can select time-shifted TV watching. This is done now with a TiVo box or digital video recorder (DVR) at the subscriber’s home. Telcos can offer what might be called network personal video recorders (PVRs), where the stored video is on the carrier’s servers (for an extra charge). These options may be the differentiator the telcos need to succeed with TV.

IPTV EXPLAINED The term IPTV should explain itself, but the definitions are tricky. IP means the Internet Protocol, of course, so it implies the transmission of video and audio using the IP. However, that’s not the same as Internet TV, which is what we call those YouTube videos and clips using Microsoft wave files. And it’s not the video supplied by Google, Yahoo, MySpace, or Microsoft that viewers watch on their PCs.

Figure 1 shows the basic structure of an IPTV network. The telecom network is fiber to the neighborhood and a fast DSL line to the customer’s home for Internet access on the PC or IPTV. This diagram shows that IPTV also could be delivered over a cable network and could very well occur in the future. A hybrid STB that can accommodate IPTV, cable, or even digital broadcast over-the-air TV may be a necessity in some areas.

There are two good examples of IPTV in the U.S. AT&T’s U-verse system, which began in Texas, is now rolling out across the country in selected areas. Fiber is run to the neighborhoods and terminates at a DSLAM that gives access to AT&T’s phone customers via the installed copper unshielded twisted pair (UTP) base. Using fast ADSL2 or VDSL2, the TV then is delivered to the customer’s TV set in compressed format.

Because it’s a fast broadband Internet connection, the customer can also get DSL Internet access service up to 6 Mbits. (Voice over IP, or VoIP, is optional.) These bundled “triple-play” services are a bargain compared to what you pay for the individual services and in most cases less expensive than equivalent deals from the cable companies.

The other example is Verizon’s FiOS. This full-blown fiber-tothe- home (FTTH) service offers TV, high-speed Internet service, and VoIP. Downstream speed is 50 Mbits/s and upstream is 20 Mbits/s, the fastest available to date. FiOS isn’t true IPTV, since it uses a delivery method similar to cable TV’s modulated RF system for TV, data, and other services. But rumors abound that Verizon will change to an all-IPTV system in the future.

While fiber is expensive, it’s the ultimate answer to higherbandwidth broadband services. DSL providers of Internet service have already hit the wall, so to speak, with data rates usually maxing out at 6 Mbits/s (slightly more in a few places). High-end DSL versions like VDSL2 do provide very high rates, but only over short distances.

Some carriers have tried using VSLS2 on two UTPs in the cable reaching 50 Mbits/s over longer distances. Top cable rates for ordinary service are faster, but cable companies have nearly hit the limit at about 20 Mbits/s with current systems and prices are high.

Thanks to the new cable protocol DOCSIS 3.0 (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), cable can now offer rates to about 50 Mbits/s with a technique called channel bonding. Fiber is the only way up beyond this point. So while it is expensive, you will begin to see more and more fiber in the future. TV demands it and consumers are pressing for faster downloads, uploads, and gaming capability. IPTV can provide that, but cable is clearly keeping up

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IPTV HARDWARE A rear-view image of a typical IPTV STB provides the details on inputs and outputs (Fig. 2). The Amino STB comes in a variety of configurations depending on the service provider and geographical location. This unit takes the IPTV signal in via a standard 10/100 Ethernet port attached to the broadband modem. Outputs to the TV set or other devices include HDMI, S/P DIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface digital audio), and optical S/P DIF. Some units also provide for composite, component, RGB, S-video, and other video formats. A USB 2.0 port is included as well.

The video decoders are MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 with resolutions to 720p and 1080i. The box will also decode MPEG-2 with resolutions to 720p and 1080i. Additionally, it handles protocols like Video on Demand (VoD) Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) video session control and multicast with Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP). It can be configured for 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. Both PAL 50-Hz and NTSC 60-Hz outputs are available. The digital output with HDMI uses the HDCP protocol. Stereo and Dolby 5.1 surroundsound are supported. Other features include an IR remote control and HTML 4 browser with JavaScript.

Circuitry inside the typical IPTV STB is very simple and often contained in a single large IC. The input usually goes through an RJ-45 connector to an Ethernet port from the external cable TV or DSL broadband modem. This signal is then sent to the media processor chip that does all of the decryption, video decompression, and other protocol implementation.

An example of such a chip is Sigma Design’s SMP8654 (Fig. 3). This device is a higher-performance version of the SMP8634, which happens to be used in more IPTV STBs than any other device. From a media-processing standpoint, the SMP8654 offers a full complement of advanced decoder engines with high-definition video decoding, including H.264 (MPEG-4 part 10), Windows Media Video 9, VC-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 (part 2), and the new AVS standard. High-performance graphics acceleration, multistandard audio decoding, advanced display-processing capabilities, and HDMI 1.3 output round out its multimedia core.

Powerful content security is ensured through a dedicated secure processor, onchip flash memory, and a range of digital rights management (DRM) engines for high-speed payload decryption. The SMP8654 also features a full complement of system peripherals, including a dual Gigabit Ethernet controller, dual USB 2.0 controller, NAND flash controller, and IR and SATA controllers.

In effect a multicore media processor, the SMP8654 features a 500-MHz MIPS 24k main CPU that enables crisp user interaction as well as a wider range of application-based features that enhance the “future-proofing” of this platform. A second MIPS processor known as the IPU manages interrupt operations and offloads burdensome system tasks, such as portions of the network stack, to further optimize main CPU utilization. A third MIPS processor manages all system security functions, including decryption and key generation.

The SMP8654 also features a new DDR-2 memory controller. It supports double-data-rate (DDR) memories up to 666 Mbits/s as well as an improved arbitration engine to maximize the efficiency of accesses. Finally, the processor maintains software compatibility with the Sigma Multimedia Library to uniquely build on the proven performance and reliability of the earlier generation platforms.

Sigma also recently announced a collaboration that will enable the Microsoft Mediaroom Internet Protocol Television and multimedia platform to operate on next-generation STBs using the Sigma SMP8654 SoC. Thanks to the solution’s high-performance, cost-effective design, service providers will likely be able to offer innovative connected TV services, such as PC to TV photo and music sharing as well as DVR Anywhere, which gives consumers the flexibility to watch their recorded programs on any TV in their home. Some STBs, especially in Europe, have built-in tuners so they can get over-the-air digital TV broadcasts, too.

On the carrier side, a complete IPTV platform requires switches, packet processing blades, CPU cards, and high-availability software that can handle 10G Ethernet speeds. One such example is Continuous Computing’s 10 Gigabit Traffic Management and Security Platform (Fig. 4).

At the heart of this platform, which is based on the Advanced Telecommunications Architecture (ATCA), is the FlexPacket PP50, a high-performance packet-processing blade. It uses two Raza Microelectronics XLR732 packet processors for packet inspection and classification.

For the computing part of the system, Continuous Computing offers its Flex- Compute ATCA-XE50 quad-core Intel Xeon processing board. The switching can be handled by one of Continuous Computing’s switches like the FlexCore ATCAFM40, an integrated 10G Ethernet base fabric switching and management solution.

CABLE'S DOCSIS RESPONSE Cable continues its dominance by moving toward DOCSIS 3.0. This CableLabs standard has yet to be widely adopted, but it will gradually find its way into every cable head end and STB. It provides more flexible and scalable high-speed Internet service at least four times faster than current DOCSIS 2.0 systems.

In addition, DOCSIS 3.0 simplifies and accelerates the introduction of new HD multimedia services, such as voice over cable and IPTV. Then with its ability to bond multiple channels together, it can achieve very high downstream and upstream rates. For example, with each 6-MHz channel capable of about 40 Mbits/s max, with four bonded channels, a rate of 160 Mbits/s can be achieved. DOCSIS also supports IPv6.

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Texas Instruments’ answer to the DOCSIS opportunity is its Puma 5 product line. Its latest addition, the TNETC4820 chip, not only implements full DOCSIS 3.0 but also supports an optional hybrid approach that includes full IPTV implementation. The TNETC4820 has high-speed interfaces, such as Gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0, as well.

It’s set up so wireless networking, powerline technologies, and advanced coax network solutions can be easily integrated. The chip also supports bonding up to eight downstream channels and four upstream channels for greater speed and capacity. The TNETC4820 is sampling now and is fully CableLabs certified for DOCSIS 3.0.

It’s also interesting to note that while the future is still fiber, DSL continues to dominate the IPTV space, mostly in Europe and Asia. Thanks to advanced standards like ADSL2 and VDSL2, this telco technology still has life in it.

ZYXEL, WHICH SUPPLIES DSL CHIPS for customer premise equipment (CPE), reports recent increases. Conexant’s DSL chips have been adopted by China’s ZTE into DSLAMs that will supply ADSL2+ into millions of Chinese homes. The Dell’Oro Group reports DSL port increases in the second quarter of 2008. For the time being, DSL will remain the core last-mile technology in IPTV until passive optical networks (PONs) eventually drop significantly in cost and customers demand speeds beyond VDSL2.

Let’s not forget that for each of the millions of new STBs, millions of new Ethernet ports will be required. SMSC offers an extensive line of Ethernet ports and switches designed for IPTV, HDTV, and other STB uses.

What the Market is saying With IPTV being relatively new, the number of subscribers is not in the same category of cable TV subscribers, but it’s growing at amazing rates. Worldwide IPTV subscribers are estimated to number more than 10 million, mostly in Europe and Asia. North America is a much smaller percentage, estimated to be about 17% of the total. There were about 1.8 million IPTV subscribers at the end of 2007, and they are AT&T and Verizon customers.

Nonetheless, North American growth is exploding. Market research firm iSuppli expects total telco TV subscribers to rise to nearly 20 million by the end of this year. Furthermore, iSuppli indicates that IPTV subscribers in both North and South America totalled 1.8 million at the end of 2007, up from 501,000 in 2006 (Fig. 5). As of April 2008, Verizon has about 1.2 million FiOS subscribers, while AT&T’s U-verse subscribers number about 400,000. The growth rate is significant, with expectation that there will be well over 3 million subscribers in both by year’s end.

Strategy Analytics indicates that U.S. IPTV revenues will grow to $14 billion in 2012, up from $694 million in 2007. Futuresource Consulting projects that global shipments of pay-TV STBs should grow by nearly 40% by 2012. That represents an increase of 38 million units. The Synergy Research Group indicates that the worldwide number of IPTV subscribers could approach 40 million by 2010.

Interestingly, according to iSuppli, growth in IPTV hasn’t come at the expense of satellite TV subscribers. Most early projections for IPTV seemed to say that growth would come by stealing satellite subscribers. Yet DirecTV and EchoStar added 2.1 million subscribers, boosting the total from 36.3 million to 39.5 million from 2006 to 2007 in North and South America combined. That clearly indicates the overall market is growing for TV service spurred on by the increasing demand for HDTV.

Steve Rago, iSuppli’s broadband analyst, believes that as telco TV continues its aggressive push, some of its growth will come from the satellite providers as well as a good segment of the cable TV market. The telcos are determined to make this work. Cable TV remains the 800-pound gorilla in this market, and all expectations are that it will remain so in the U.S. Still, IPTV will continue to grow and ultimately have some effect on the cable market, due to its current pricing advantage.


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