Interactive TV Poised for a Rollout

Monday, February 14th 2005, 10:38 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ I want my IPTV? Internet Protocol, the language of most online communications, was supposed to have revolutionized the way we watch television by now, enabling a wide range of multimedia bells and whistles: from multiple camera angles to on-screen Web searches while viewing Gilligan's Island to see which actors are still living.

But just as the tech bubble's promise of ``IP'' telephone service over an Internet connection is only now becoming a widespread reality, IPTV finally appears to be on the verge of cracking the U.S. mainstream.

Not the cable TV establishment _ which questions the technology and the demand for so much interactivity _ but rather three Bell telephone companies are taking IPTV off the drawing board in the United States, much as telecom players in Asia and Europe have led the way abroad.

The extent of the Bells' plans vary considerably, but perhaps a dozen markets will see some form of IPTV starting later this year, and millions of homes may have the option by the end of 2006.

SBC Communications Inc., the dominant local phone company from the Midwest to California, is deploying a full-blown IPTV system that it plans to launch by year-end in at least a few undisclosed markets.

Verizon Communications Inc. plans to offer some interactive IP-based features on top of a conventional digital cable service. The company also won't name its debut markets, due mid-year, though it has secured cable franchise licenses in certain suburbs of Dallas and Los Angeles.

While BellSouth Corp. has expressed doubt about whether a cable rollout makes financial sense, the company sees enough potential to trial IPTV technology in undisclosed markets.

The nation's dominant cable providers, busy introducing telephone service across the country, say there's no rush to introduce TV services much more interactive than video-on-demand and digital video recorders to pause, fast-forward and rewind.

They argue that both the IP technology and the telephone networks that the Bells are upgrading for video are unproven.

``They'll have some startup bugs. That's the nature of combining something new with something old,'' said Phil Leigh, president of Inside Digital Media, a research firm in Tampa, Fla.

``But if I was a cable company, I would not minimize what the Bells are doing. It's not just something they want to do because it's cool. It's something they are compelled to do to survive, and if somebody's survival is threatened, you'd better believe they're serious about what they're doing.''

So how does IPTV work, and what's the big deal?

IPTV converts a television signal into small packets of computer data like any other form of online traffic such as e-mail, a Web page or the Internet phone service known as VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol _ making it easier to integrate the various services on a TV screen.

Using the home's high-speed Internet connection in both directions, a channel selection is transmitted from the set-top box to a local facility, which sends back only the packets of video and audio for the desired channel. The packets are reassembled into programming by software in the set-top box.

A conventional analog or digital cable signal uses far more bandwidth. Every single channel is sent all the way to the set-top box at all times. Each channel requires a separate stream, and there's only so much room on the wire.

That's why IPTV addresses a more pressing need for SBC, which is replacing its major copper phone cables with speedy optical fiber. SBC is not, however, replacing the local lines to every home, as Verizon is.

Copper can only carry a handful of channels at a time, so SBC is relying on IPTV to serve any home with multiple TVs.

Because the technology is relatively unproven, the Bells won't be attempting any of IPTV's more daring tricks in their customers' homes.

Instead, SBC and Verizon both plan to outdo the cable companies by offering a larger program selection, a competitive price, and a smattering of mildly futuristic features that remain a secret.

That secrecy doesn't prevent the Bells and other IPTV advocates from reciting a mantra of fanciful possibilities reminiscent of the early Web days with its visions of ``virtual assistants'' who'd remember mom's birthday and automatically send flowers.

The stock examples of an IPTV future include caller ID, e-mail and voice mail on the television; programming a digital video recorder via cell phone; pulling up data during a baseball game to see how Barry Bonds has fared against that pitcher in that stadium; multiple camera angles to watch the president and the reaction from both sides of the aisle during the State of the Union address.

At a minimum, both SBC and Verizon expect to offer an interactive program guide that might enable viewers to watch a sample clip, program a digital video recorder, pull up information about the actors and director or search for other shows on a related topic or from the same genre.

SBC has indicated it may offer other interactive features from the outset such as the ability to program one's home digital video recorder over the Internet.

Whatever the initial features, they'll likely be included at no extra charge. Analysts say that's probably best.

``While people will mess around with their remotes and pull up information, there's no indication consumers value any of that or would be willing to pay for it,'' said Josh Bernoff, an industry analyst for Forrester Research.

Bernoff noted that one profitable application, a sports gambling service offered in Britain by satellite TV provider BSkyB, may not be a legal option when BSkyB owner News Corp. adds interactive features to its DirecTV network in this country.

The three Bells are using technology from Microsoft Corp., a coup for the software maker after a decade of frustrated attempts to extend its software's dominance from the personal computer to cable television.

Many bemoan that dominance in the PC world, but the choice of Microsoft might mean greater ease in the effort to meld TV with the Internet.

``If you're going to be implementing some new capability that requires software, they're the go-to company,'' regardless of whether they have the best technology, said Leigh. ``Who's going to fire you if you choose Microsoft? If you choose Digital Data Wack, and it doesn't work, then you're going to get fired.''