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July 03, 2007

Enea and Kontron Help Drive IPTV Experience Initiative



By Richard Grigonis
Executive Editor, IP Communications Group


One of the more interesting announcements that came out of the 2007 NXTcomm show in Chicago was that Enea (News - Alert) a provider of network software and services, and Kontron a major developer of standard-based, custom embedded and mobile rugged solutions, is launching the IPTV Experience Initiative, a global, broad-based industry initiative that tackles the design, technology and business challenges currently hindering widespread IPTV adoption. Other companies in the IPTV Experience Initiative include Intel (News - Alert) Corp. and RADVISION.

 
John Smolucha Vice President of Product Marketing and Business Development for Enea, says, “The IPTV Experience Initiative is a coalition of companies that have teamed up to address not only the purely technical but some of the Quality of Experience [QoE] and the business challenges centering on the deployment of IPTV. It’s basically an alliance of companies that are looking beyond the parochial interests that many businesses tend to harbor. We’re really focusing here on what integrated hardware/software/middleware component solutions have to look like in order to guarantee an outstanding consumer experience and a successful deployment of IPTV services.”
 
“We all collectively view IPTV as one of the great possibilities when it comes to technology moving forward,” says Smolucha, “and we’d like to see it successfully deployed everywhere. At the moment, however, there appears to be a lot of stumbling going on.
 
Smolucha continues: “Enea has got 30-plus years of experience in telecom software. What we provide here is more or less a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) pre-validated software platform that can take you from ‘down-in-the-weeds’ — and by that I mean, DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) and operating systems — all the way up to the high availability middleware and network management and network configuration software, so that designers can really focus on not so much the nuts-and-bolts of bringing together proprietary systems, but getting to market a lot faster with a system that’s proven, works, and will give them the scalability and performance improvements needed to get products and services out into the market quickly.”
 
“Consider for a moment AT&T’s (News - Alert) early involvement in this space with their U-verse IPTV service they launched in 2006, with the goal of reaching 15 markets,” says Smolucha. “Given all of the analysts’ forecasts regarding subscribers and the potential for IPTV, the early deployments ran into some pretty significant problems in 2007, right down to where AT&T’s CTO, Chris Rice, was getting hammered by Business Week magazine to the tune of ‘Hey guys, what went wrong?’ Rice’s response was essentially, ‘Things have turned out to be a lot more complicated than we thought it was going to be.’ In fact, they ran into scalability issues. The service worked great as a pilot project, but didn’t work so well when they tried to scale it up to serve many thousands of subscribers. This is always a fundamental challenge to any new technology and service: can you guarantee that your solution is going to scale without spending years in the lab?”
 
“When you look at the collective group of companies that make up the IPTV Experience Initiative,” says Smolucha, “Kontron are obviously experts in the area of high availability hardware and building commercial off-the-shelf scalable systems. Enea’s software is tightly integrated with them. RADVISION, of course, is known for their expertise in protocols and some of the software that must sit on top of that. And Intel brings their experience in semiconductor technology and layering everything together.”
 
“Even though we have assembled a great group, we’re looking to broaden things and bring other players into this Initiative that can positively contribute in helping guarantee that telcos see a return on their big capital investments in IPTV,” says Smolucha.
 
“When you look at, for example, 3G wireless, note the massive investment that was made, something like 40 billion Euros in spectrum, before the first handset even shipped,” says Smolucha. “We’re all coming out of a market that has gone through some rough times. Obviously, the desire of every leader in a market is to make sure that they’re driving innovation and that the overall market is growing, and that there’s a positive ROI for the people who are investing in the industry. We’ve got something to contribute in this area. Some of the tier-2 and tier-3 telcos are breaking into new, uncharged territory, in a manner of speaking, because it’s not so much about running a twisted pair to a house and making sure that you get the proper bandwidth. Instead, you’ve got a consumer tethered to that wire that probably has predefined expectations based on their 50 years of TV experience. If you look at iPods or MP3 players, that type of new technology breaks in where you have no predefined expectations, because you haven’t seen them before. But we all have some strong biases about what constitutes a quality TV experience, whether it’s cable, satellite or just over-the-air broadcasting.”
 
“We noted in the deployment of AT&T’s early system that early adopters would press a button on their remote and it would take something like 15 to 30 seconds for the channel to change,” says Smolucha. “That may not seem like a big deal when you’re talking with an engineer in a lab, but if it’s my wife and she’s sitting in our living room and she’s paying for the service and the channel’s not changing that quickly, well, she’ll call me at work and say ‘Why did you order this stuff? Get Time Warner (News - Alert) cable back in here!’.”
 
“The original hype about IPTV was that you’d have thousands of channels and that you could change among them quickly,” says Smolucha. “We know that that didn’t happen. AT&T tired to fix things by throwing more servers at the problem, and that actually made things worse. According to their analyses, they found that the middleware layer that they had chosen wasn’t really architected for real-time operation. As they tried to scale up, they ran into some pretty severe challenges.”
 
“Again, if you look at, say, Apple’s cost of acquiring a new customer for a then-new product such as an iPod, you’ve got a consumer base that’s ready to embrace the new technology,” says Smolucha. “On the other hand, AT&T and other companies that want to get into the IPTV space not only have to deal with the customer acquisition costs that are associated with the hardware installation and the cabling to the home — I believe the figures Business Week quoted were somewhere around $700 just to bring the equipment into the home — but you’ve also got the marketing and switching costs relating to persuading a subscriber to abandon a proven cable or satellite TV experience and try IPTV. Early adopters are rather notorious. When they don’t have a great experience, they complain about it loudly, so there’s a lot at stake here, at least in my opinion.”
 
Powering mammoth IPTV provider installations will be some hefty server equipment, most likely based on AdvancedTCA (ATCA). That’s where Kontron, one of the world’s major embedded and rackmount computer manufacturers, has made its mark recently.
 
Sven Freudenfeld, Kontron’s Director of Business Development for Telecom in North America, says, “Our overall message is that there is a challenge to serve the increase in the IPTV subscriber base that’s coming. Steve Hawley, the Senior IPTV analyst at Multimedia Research Group (MRG) said that there will be 63.6 million IPTV subscribers by 2011, and they’ll demand a high Quality of Experience to remain loyal to a provider. We think providers should use as much commercial COTS technology as possible. You see an increase in available bandwidth with 10 Gbps Ethernet running on, let’s say, AdvancedTCA platforms and off-the-shelf middleware portions that can be implemented in a network element.”
 
“Whenever you build on a huge scale, standards are always important,” says Freudenfeld. “In terms of standards, Kontron is focusing on the hardware platform, since it’s part of PICMG [PCI Industry Computer Manufacturer’s Group] and it’s focusing on ATCA. Enea is part of the SA [Service Availability] Forum for high availability software and middleware and we also have companies that are members of the SCOPE Alliance and so on. Every company in the Initiative in some way drives a standards-based platform. In the case of Kontron, we’re not involved so much in the protocol stack — that’s where RADVISION fits in.”
 
So, will pricey yet powerful AdvancedTCA form factor equipment find favor within the IPTV environment?
 
“AdvancedTCA is obviously the best platform to choose for IPTV deployment,” says Freudenfeld. “We have companies that are seriously looking into ATCA platforms because of the performance afforded by them, both in terms of CPU performance and overall processing performance. ATCA is built with telecom in mind. In other words, among other things, it offers high availability in a telecom infrastructure. The announcement of 10 gigabit per second Ethernet running on ATCA equipment, along with network processing capabilities, makes ATCA the best platform to flexibly meet the demands generated by massive IPTV subscriber growth. Many tier-1 and tier-2 customers are considering ATCA as the ideal platform for IPTV deployments. There’s a 200-watt power envelope on the CPU blade, for example, which enables large-scale encoding and decoding, though mainly encoding will be needed at the head-end, but it also bodes well for adding additional functionality such as digital rights management and operations support systems [OSS].”
 
The IPTV Experience Initiative will ultimately unite many companies to enhance and drive IPTV best practices and standards. For more information about the IPTV Experience Initiative, visit www.iptvexperience.com.
 
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Richard Grigonis is an internationally-known technology editor and writer. Prior to joining TMC (News - Alert), he was the Editor-in-Chief of VON Magazine from its founding in 2003 to August 2006. He also served as the Chief Technical Editor of CMP Media’s Computer Telephony magazine (later called Communications Convergence from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. In addition, he has written five books on computers and telecom (including the Computer Telephony Encyclopedia and Dictionary of IP Communications). To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.
 
 
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