IPTV? Of course, but don’t forget RFTV

We’ve spent some time this month at the FTTH Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, and we’ve, as always, been keeping an eye on the news related to telco TV strategies and access trends.

At the FTTH Conference, we sat through a number of presentations and sessions, and sat down with pretty much all of the big FTTH vendors. An interesting thing came to the surface – yes everyone believes in IPTV (who can argue with IP anything?). And yes, IPTV does have some distinct advantages. And yes (again) IPTV offers some services that more traditional services don’t – or at least it can if a service provider takes advantage of all that IPTV is capable of (and if the system vendors can deliver).

But… when it comes to doing PON, telco TV over the RF video overlay (like Verizon is doing – and like most FTTH deployments are doing) is still alive and kicking. In fact, RFTV (let’s give it a name, as “1550 nm RF overlay” is just too awkward, isn’t it?), has a lot going for it.

First, and foremost for most service providers, is the technical maturity of the products that support it. The RF video products – headends, set top boxes and the rest – that can support RFTV in a service provider’s PON network are well tested and proven in hundreds of millions of cable TV operations. A service provider can easily find vendors and integrators who know RFTV cold and can get them up and running without a hitch (though getting the PON up and running the way they’d like is still a challenge).

RFTV’s overlay wavelength also gives an operator a surfeit of TV bandwidth to do with as they please – Gigabytes of TV bandwidth to carry analog, digital and HDTV programming galore. And there’s no reason why an operator can’t mix IP services into the overlay bandwidth, just as cable TV operators are doing today.

RFTV isn’t a stationary target either. RFTV vendors aren’t taking IPTV laying down – they’re innovating and moving forward.

Just as MSOs are moving to 1 GHz (from today’s 850 MHz networks) and increasing the number of channels that can be placed in an “RF channel,” so too can a PON-based service provider – taking advantage of the same infrastructure improvements being developed for (and volume-produced for) MSOs. At the same time, the RFTV can (and will) take advantage of the improved codecs and encoding techniques that are being developed to make IPTV work within the limited bandwidth that even the fastest DSL variants are offering. So if MPEG-4 brings HDTV down to 7 or so M bit/sec per channel, well it’s not just IPTV that benefits – RFTV suddenly can fit more .

That “unused” bandwidth on the primary 1310 nm wavelength can also be used to pick up some if RFTV’s slack (if there is any). A hybrid RF/IPTV solution isn’t at all out of the question, and some vendors are actively supporting it.  For example, major set top vendors at the FTTH Conference showed us set top boxes with dual functionality – IPTV and RFTV in a single box. Talk about futureproofing.

None of this is to say that IPTV isn’t the future. For telcos, especially those who want to present a unified service across different access networks (like SBC is doing with Project Lightspeed’s VDSL network and its satellite/DSL offerings), IPTV is really the only choice. And as volumes rise (see Project Lightspeed again), the price of IPTV gear will drop and close the gap with RFTV gear. And of course, as IPTV is deployed, the technology (and vendor’s gear) will be proven out.

Now we’re not claiming that the benefits of RFTV are news. There’s a reason almost every PON deployment to date has used RFTV technology. But if you were to listen to prevailing wisdom, you’d think it’s time to move full ahead into IPTV. Ask us again in a few years and we’ll probably agree. But for now, when we consider RFTV we think: there’s still some life left in the old gal.

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