The Revolution Will Be Televised

Published Date
01 - May - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2006
The Revolution Will Be Televised
Sometime between turning on the tube to Chhayageet on Doordarshan, and switching channels to spend late nights with Conan O'Brien, the Internet happened. Suddenly, we had this nebulous mesh of wires that magically connected every computer in the world with every other. If data could be broken down into IP-sized packets, it could now be transmitted over this Web. Today, you thus have a network that can bring you your work, your personal e-mails, your phone calls, your video conferences, your blogs, your podcasts, your music, your videos, and your games-over a cable wire, and if you are really lucky, at a flat monthly rate.

As things stand today, telcos are feeling the pinch of encroaching Internet solutions. For example, no telecommunication company with a monopoly to protect is happy over VoIP and the cheap long-distance (or even free) phone calls it delivers. But VoIP is just the tip of the iceberg: today Wi-Fi-enabled handsets can completely eliminate the need to make a phone call via the traditional channels, local or overseas. Tomorrow, when WiMAX throws a much wider wireless blanket over cities… well, it won't be the happiest time to be a telecommunications company.

While the Internet has thrown a spanner in the business machinery of many an industry-from music to telecommunication-as a disruptive technology, it is forever changing the status quo. Music downloads for 99 cents a song, international phone calls at a fraction of the cost, and interactive content to begin with. Going forward into 2007, this disruptive force will bring us another key technology-IPTV, or Internet Protocol Television.

For telcos, IPTV is a promise of a wide range of revenue streams. When you consider the fact that IPTV is essentially an Internet line connected to your television, you can imagine it opening the doors to a gamut of Web services, be it data, video or voice. Telecommunication companies would like to become your sole communication link and your only source for both non-interactive and interactive entertainment. And they are betting on IPTV to take them there.

You will thus find phone companies jumping onto the IPTV bandwagon. Already, Reliance has announced its intention to roll out services leveraging this technology by the end of this year. Other telecom players such as Bharti (Airtel), BSNL and VSNL have also reported their plans to enter this segment.

How does it work?
If you have ever watched a video streamed over the Internet, you have already experienced IPTV in its broadest sense. Simply put, the technology leverages the Internet to bring you television. However, while the video you streamed over the Net was very likely a stuttering, pixelated, low-resolution Aishwarya Rai number, IPTV will bring you content as you expect and demand from TV-smooth, and at high resolution.

So how does it work? Let's stick to Aishwarya to understand that. Say your friendly neighbourhood telecom operator has licensed the rights to telecast the latest and the hottest item number featuring Ms Rai. First step at the telecom HQ would be to encode the raw video into a format more suited to streaming. While they could stick to MPEG-2, better compression would be afforded by a more up-to-date codec, such as H.264 or Microsoft's Windows Media format. (Incidentally, Reliance and Microsoft have signed deals to the effect that the former will use Microsoft TV as the software powering its IPTV offering.)

Right, now that we have a video clip in the required format, it is then broken down into IP packets to be compliant with the way the Internet works. These packets are then multicast from a central HQ to local operators.

Unicast transmits separate video,        Multicast conserves network
audio or text streams to each              bandwidth by sending a
computer requesting data.                   single stream of data
Unicasting video can flood the
A multicast message is one that is transmitted to multiple recipients simultaneously-thus, while a broadcast message is sent to everyone, a multicast message is sent to specific groups; called multicast groups. The biggest benefit is that of bandwidth conservation.

To better understand the concept of multicasting, picture a tree: its trunk is the backbone of the entire structure, the one with the maximum bandwidth. The trunk then breaks into branches, and the branches then sprout leaves. Imagine data flowing through such a tree. A multicast stream would be transmitted only once from its trunk, through the major branches, and would then be distributed (multiplied, or technically, multiplexed) out to the leaves. A multicast data stream is thus a single stream until it reaches its endpoints. In the case of IPTV, each channel is multicast to several endpoints. Later on, we will see how this helps.

Internet guru Dave Clark describes the multicast model thus: "You put packets in at one end, and the network conspires to deliver them to anyone who asks [for them]". In our example, content is multicast to local operators, or from the network's perspective, to the local routers.

Before we head further, we would like to point out that the decoding of the Aishwarya video and its eventual streaming is a very one-dimensional view of what really transpires. The telco's HQ is a hive of network activity. This hub handles all sorts of data, including traditional voice content, video, high-quality music, e-mail packets from the Internet, etc. This hub-side view allows the HQ to guarantee a high level of quality over their streams. It also allows them to prioritise these streams to maximise the available bandwidth. Note that since each stream is multicast, there is no way for an end-point to request corrupted content again-to allow for this inflexibility, multicast streams transmit redundant packets. All this ensures that hassle-free and high-quality content is just a remote control away, without breaking the plug-and-play spell of our TV sets.
Back to our scheduled program: the video stream has reached the local operator. This is where all the boring and invisible, yet important, bits go in, the most important being the software controls. Here you would have elements controlling user authentication, user billing, channel change requests, video-on-demand requests, advertisements, and so on.

At a user's end, the connection goes into a set-top box, which arranges the packets and then decodes the incoming signal for your TV set. We said each channel was multicast to several end-points, and that this was a good thing: now, note that the set-top box is acting as an end-point to the multicast content. Each channel is sent to a particular multicast group. Thus, when you change the channel, the set-top box simply changes its multicast group. This is as good as instantaneous, and thus, when it comes to IPTV, surfing through channels should be faster than ever.

The "last mile" to the user can be either over DSL twisted-pair or over cable. Rarely, this could also take place over optic cables, making for an end-to-end optic solution. Generally though, DSL is what would be used, seeing as we are talking about phone operators. The bandwidth afforded by a DSL loop is considerably less than ideal. However, since not all channels are simultaneously multicast, the problem is greatly allayed.

An Interactive View
One of the benefits of IPTV is video-on-demand, or VOD. It means exactly what it implies-instead of waiting on your favourite show, you can watch it when you want to. This generally works with the help of a VOD server, which stores content made available for such a demand, and handles requests to that end. A multicast stream, however, does not allow for VOD. This is because VOD is essentially a unique service-like Batman's hotline to Commissioner Gordon! To enable this feature, the local operator creates a unicast stream to your house. This stream connects your TV to the VOD server mentioned, opening access to all your Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu needs.

You also get VCR-like control over a video stream. This allows you to pause, rewind or forward a show as you see fit. IPTV can also bring digital video recording (DVR) to your TV, if such functionality is offered by the set-top box. A DVR-enabled box can be used to record important cricket matches, for example. Over IPTV, a DVR can not only record a show while you are watching another, it can also record multiple shows simultaneously (bandwidth willing). Since all this is digital, you can also see multiple picture-in-picture applications.

As we touched upon earlier, the telco at the heart of all this handles more than just video. Imagine the service leveraging its access to the Internet to bring you your e-mail, or its access to the phone lines to bring you your phone calls. Imagine then, a scenario in which you are notified by a small pop-up of an incoming e-mail while watching a show. Or imagine taking a video call as a picture-in-picture overlaid on a football match that just cannot be missed.

There will also be the relatively mundane enhancements to your TV experience: interactive TV guides on your favourite shows, perhaps linked to user reviews and ratings. Pay-per-view could also be offered via such guides.

Another great functionality could be a process wherein you only pay for what you watch, although this is unlikely to happen-channels generally wrap their hit shows with assorted crud, and will therefore continue to offer, and charge for, so-called bouquets… of crud.

Vive La Révolution?
IPTV is not the only means of viewing video content over the Net. Services such as You Tube ( allow users to share video content over the WWW. Even Google is on it, with its Google Video service, which is unfortunately not yet available in India. We can imagine an amalgamation of content sources and a variety of streams that will entertain us in the years to come. Take Google for example: in the US, it plans to cover cities with Wi-Fi access; free, ad-sponsored Wi-Fi at that. Down the line, Wi-Fi can be replaced with WiMAX with its mile-wide blanket of coverage.

AOL recently unveiled In2TV-a streaming TV Web site accessible over the Internet. Apple with its iPod/iTunes combination, and Microsoft with its PlaysForSure/Windows Media devices, can both offer a wide range of audio and video content over personal computers, laptops, PDAs, portable media players, and so on.

Pretty soon, everywhere you turn, TV will be there, waiting. You will no longer need to stay home to be able to be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. Question is-is that a revolting or a revolutionary thought?

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