IPTV TV distribution development keeps going

It’s not news that the distribution of IPTV content within the home is, for many carriers, as big a challenge as getting the signal to the home in the first place. Early IPTV providers in the U.S. (folks like SureWest ) have often had to add hundreds of dollars (multiple hundreds, as much as $400 or $500) to their customer acquisition costs in order to run Category 5 cabling to remote set top box locations within the home.

Everyone – and we mean everyone – is working on this problem, with a number of alternatives percolating up to the top of the pile. Cat 5, phone line, powerline, coax-based solutions and even wireless have been suggested, tested and, in some cases, deployed.

But the fact of the matter is that there’s no magic bullet for in-home IPTV distribution yet today. Most carriers seem to be leaning, at least in the short term, towards using existing coax to distribute their IPTV. And this makes a lot of sense, given the fact that most homes have at least a few runs of coaxial cable going to the most likely IPTV set top box locations.

Two groups have made the most headway here – the MoCA alliance (built around Entropic Communication’s technology) and Coaxsys’ TVnet (Coaxsys is building its own similar coalition around this technology). Both systems offer the promise of 100Mbps (or more) over coaxial cable, providing the infrastructure for multiple simultaneous high def streams within the home – and given the rapid downward price curve of HD-capable displays, supporting at least 3 HD streams is a minimum requirement moving forward.

We’re bullish on these coax-based solutions, simply because they fit the existing video-over-coax paradigm and infrastructure found in most homes, and because they’re relatively cheap and easy to install. Most importantly, they work in most homes without retrofit or modification of existing cable infrastructure, and without the need to have expensive technician time spent troubleshooting and fine-tuning the install. Most telco TV service providers and vendors have seemed to agree too, with MoCA finding great success in the solutions being pitched in the latest PON RFP, and with Coaxsys getting the nod in a large number of smaller IPTV deployments. MoCA has even brought a second source chip supplier onboard in the past weeks, to help diversify the supply chain and ease telco’s minds about single source technologies.

But all this is not to say that coax is the solution, at least not for all homes. A surprising number of homes don’t have coax in all of the rooms where they have a TV, or where they’d like to have a TV (like the kitchen). And while these solutions are designed to work with almost all existing coax layouts, there are always going to be a number of installations that just won’t work without cabling upgrades and rerouting.

This means providers are looking for other solutions, and vendors are offering them alternatives using a variety of different in-home media types. For example, the HPNA phone line networking standard has seen risen from the dead and HPNA 3.0 announcements (and chip shipments) have started to take off as carriers look at phone lines as an alternative to coax in their future FTTH and IPTV plans.

Powerline networking continues to plug along as well, with (nominal) 85Mbps systems shipping and HomePlug A/V continuing to show up on the radar of carriers and set top box vendors.

The real question mark, in our minds (and in those of IPTV carriers) is wireless. Today’s Wi-Fi solutions just don’t cut it, but wireless has so many potential advantages (complete independence from existing media and ease of installation being the topmost) that it remains compelling. And when we talk to IPTV folks at various carriers they all have wireless distribution on their wish list – albeit on their long-term wish list.

We’ve had a chance to bring into our lab a wireless solution that’s shipping today – Ruckus Wireless (formerly Video54). This solution builds on top of standards-based 802.11g Wi-Fi and adds two elements: a multiple antenna element, beam-forming MIMO technology (BeamFlex) , and a software layer (SmartCast) which adds traffic monitoring and engineering and QoS. The result is a system which can evaluate a variety of “paths” from the home gateway to set top boxes and automatically (and dynamically) choose the best path for signal quality and throughput.

The Ruckus system is designed to take Wi-Fi to a new level by providing a consistent and reliable level of throughput and latency regardless of local RF conditions and interference. Ruckus is today shipping this system to several non-US IPTV providers (including PCCW in Hong Kong, one of the largest IPTV deployments in the world).

Today’s system won’t necessarily support multiple HDTV streams (at least not the three streams we see as being necessary moving forward), but it’s been proven in telco deployments of standard definition. As 802.11n moves forward and offers the underlying raw throughput that will support multiple streams of 20Mbps HDTV, we’re looking forward to what Ruckus will be able to do with this new standards.

The bottom line here is that IPTV providers will be looking at multiple in-home distribution systems. Wireless is one that they shouldn’t rule out.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.