IPTV/VoD: solving the home wiring problem

PLC unplugged

Industry comment If you’re a survey junkie, you no doubt love the sheer onslaught of silly press activity that’s been happening recently in technology world. IPTV, the all-healing panacea, is so hot almost everyone wants to do it despite not having given a lot of thought to the real delivery issues that it will involve for them. The most absurd surveys were conducted by Harris and Accenture – both offering contradictory results that weren’t a lot of help to anyone.

The latest earth-shattering news from our favourite black hole for public money is that consumers don’t know what "IPTV" is. Profound, until you realise that they don’t know what DVB is either, but they still buy digital TV. Money-guzzling consultancy one, common sense, zero. Almost as useful as mobile providers realising the killer app for 3G is voice, or telco networks deciding on interoperability principles when they are intent on using Microsoft’s IPTV Edition platform.

The world is moving very, very rapidly for ISPs all over the world. Operators are charging down the road to next-generation IMS (IP multimedia subsystem) networks, and consumers are eating up bandwidth like their very lives depend on it. Telcos are becoming cable companies, broadcasters are becoming P2P networks and consumers are dazzled by the choice of the many providers that market consolidation is well underway.

No longer is it satisfactory to provide just broadband connectivity, and keep up-selling capacity – even with BT's latest Max range of products that go up to the full line-rate of 8Mbps, vanilla DSL has already been superseded by ADSL2+ in the LLU world. There is already chatter about hopping over that to go straight to VDSL2, which can offer up to 100Mbps. All of these last mile technologies are great, but if you don’t have the backhaul network, you might as well be on dial-up.

The great change telcos and ISPs are facing is one that strikes at the heart of their business. Most are content never to speak with the great unwashed public, and if you look closely, you’ll see that a large proportion give no contact details for themselves and offer little, unsatisfactory, or no customer support. Homechoice has once again been the first into a brave new world, and despite a number of direction changes has settled on a course that all ISPs need to follow. It now describes itself as providing a "digital home network"”, and nothing could be more succinct in industry terms. Now it's all about what you do with your connection, the value-added services you layer onto your basic connectivity products to differentiate yourself because ISPs are evolving into companies that power a customer’s home network. The vast majority of connecting hardware and services that give the raison d’etre for wiring up the house are delivered by them – broadband routers/switches, voice over IP, set-top boxes and more.

What this means is choosing an ISP is a lot more than just switching providers at the exchange level. As networks scramble to lock customers into loyalty to their brand, potential subscribers will be walking into a relationship with a company that provides their telephone, television, media services and home automation services, on top of the basic broadband connection that powers them all. And this is not a bad thing, as we will explore later on. Consumers need guidance as to how to create and manage their home broadband networks.

Unfortunately, two distinct things currently stand in the way of a beautiful and harmonious future of converged multimedia services – the first being usage-based charging, and the great evil, wires-only broadband installation. The industry ridiculed Wanadoo when they mandated the use of a LiveBox for all their customers, but the joke's on us. Wires-only packages may appear to reduce support costs at first glance, but because their flexibility allows unmitigated chaos in terms of what CPE gets used (routers, USB modems etc) or how the home is wired, ultimately it's created more long-term problems than it has solved.

The challenge awaiting operators is the tangled mess that is a consumer’s house – the wild unknown, and generally referred to as the "home wiring problem". The issue is composed of three sub-branches – quality of service (QoS), connectivity distribution between rooms and standardising a generic future-proofed home network architecture. The underlying difficulty when addressing issues generated by Joe Public is that up until now what exists beyond the front door is entirely arbitrary, that is to say that every home is different. Similarities exist, but the way it’s all put together is a random, scrambled chaos that is going to cost a lot of time and money to organise at mass-market scale. The market can’t be left alone to sort itself out either when it comes this issue, as much as operators would like that.

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