|North America 2007
|TV anywhere – are operators ready?
|Chairman and Co-founder
Keith Willetts is Chairman of the Board of Directors and a Co-founder of the TeleManagement Forum; he is recognized as one of the worldís leading authorities on communications management. Currently Managing Partner at Mandarin Associates Ltd in the UK, he consults with companies on a wide variety of business development issues. He previously held executive positions at BT and TCSI. A regular presenter and writer, he co-authored the highly influential book, The Lean Communications Provider. His achievements have been internationally recognized; he has been been honoured twice in the Communications Week ëTop 25í awards for industry visionaries, and with the British Computer Society award and the BT Gold Medal. Keith Willetts is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the UK and attended the Sloan School of Management at MIT (Executive MBA programme).
A bundle of services that include IPTV – the delivery of TV services over a broadband connection – is at the centre of most operating companiesí plans to compete with broadcast and cable TV. To compete with traditional TV, IPTV needs to function as well as traditional TV. For the most part, the existing telco infrastructure was not designed specifically for the task, and there are few proven systems and little experience just yet to deliver a satisfactory experience for mass-consumption.
Just a few years ago, the idea of receiving video on your mobile phone was something straight out of a science-fiction movie. Today, seemingly overnight, small, high-quality colour video devices from mobile phones to iPods have arrived. Starting with still picture messaging, video messaging and video clip downloads are becoming common, but what about full length TV shows, movies and even live broadcast TV on a handset? How far away are we from ubiquitous, anytime, anywhere full mobile TV services? Not very far, actually. Just about every wireless operator is talking about bringing TV to the handset, and just about every fixed-line operator is talking about delivering TV to your home over existing phone lines. Trials are also taking place for digital broadcasting directly to the handset, so that broadcast TV and on-demand, ënarrow-castí services can be mixed and matched in one seamless package. All of this sounds great, of course, but turning these neat technologies into services that work the first time, every time and that deliver the level of customer experience set by HD broadcasts to 60 inch plasma screens is going to be a challenge. Sorting out the technical and service issues One problem is that the platforms in place today to deliver them were not designed for the task, and in fact they vary a lot in their capability to deliver high-quality video. This is particularly the case for IPTV – on demand TV via fixed line broadband. The vast majority of these services will pass over copper access networks, mostly decades old. Problems include the fact that operators simply donít know their line plant capacity for delivering these services. Typically, only about half of line plant records are up to date, so the service is being launched into a black hole. Also, most traditional fixed-line operators are not used to delivering services to the point of use. They are used to delivering service to a point in the home, such as the plug where you connect your phone, but whatís on the other side of that plug is the customerís problem. A TV service extends to the glass screen and may pass through a set-top box, home gateway, via a broadband service, over a local copper loop, back into a core IP network, via a content aggregator and ultimately to a content server! All of those service elements need to line up, work perfectly and be capable of scaling to millions of customers. But unlike broadcast TV, where millions of customers get the same programmes, each mobile TV or IPTV customer is receiving a unique service. IPTV and mobile TV are different from mobile phone services. When caller ID or voice mail were introduced, the customer had never seen them before and would put up with teething troubles because the service was so novel. Thatís not true with IPTV or mobile TV; customers know that traditional television service works the first time, every time. It rarely goes wrong, and it delivers the kind of quality of service that customers are comfortable with. They just push a button, and itís there. So the challenge of delivering a high level of customer service in IPTV or mobile TV is there from day one – and itís a massively greater challenge than delivering high-quality broadcast TV. Take billing as an example – with satellite or cable you pay a subscription for certain channel packages, and thatís it. With IPTV or mobile TV, the individual channel requested is transmitted directly to the subscriber. You pay for what you consume, so the billing system must record this and pay the various contributors to the service for their portion. When the service gets corrupted during the download, the system must be able to recover and take that into account. How is that handled? How does the provider even know – short of the customer canceling their contract – whether the service is acceptable or not for each particular customer? How can the provider monitor end-to-end service quality right to the glass screen across multiple bits of technology? There are few standards and few ways of doing that today. Most are proprietary approaches that only work with certain combinations of service, set-top box, TV set, etc. You have to have a precise mix of all of those things in order to even get the service up and running. Service quality is key Service providers have to look at quality of service issues from the point of view of what the guy sitting in front of his TV is going to find acceptable or unacceptable. Operators have to think service quality, not network quality; thatís a big cultural shift – for many telecom services the network and the service are the same thing. For IPTV and mobile TV services, however, they arenít. Since most IPTV providers arenít taking something as basic as remote control response time into account or the acute annoyance of pixilating screens or frozen frames, weíre seeing very high churn rates in IPTV trials and customers are going back to satellite or cable. Getting that customer service dynamic just right is extremely important. Now, the only way of achieving that is to carefully engineer the lineup of all the bits, boxes and circuits on an almost individual basis. However, that is difficult to do when selling IPTV or mobile TV as a mass-market product to millions of people. Traditional telecom operators are accustomed to being masters of their own destiny. They design the service, engineer the service, deliver the service, and everything within the service is under their control, but that dynamic is being turned on its head with growing value chains that incorporate many additional players. With TV services, a long list of players who have never worked together in the past now have to cooperate; understandably, there are many unanticipated difficulties to resolve. Usually itís the guy at the end of the value chain – the provider – who is stuck with all the problems. With IPTV, even basic tasks like ëtrouble ticketingí arenít cut and dried. With such a long value chain, how do you send a trouble ticket from supplier A to supplier B to supplier C? Is it going to be by email or even a fax? None of these methods are very good. Trouble tickets need to be time stamped, escalated and closed out in pre-defined periods, and passing a significant volume of problems from sub-contractor to sub-contractor requires careful integration and automation if it is to work at all. Appropriate operational standards, however, are beginning to evolve. The TM Forumís Prospero programme has a complete set of working information exchange standards for areas such as trouble ticketing. Today, only the telecom industry uses these standards – the challenge is to ensure that they are wholly appropriate for TV services and then get them adopted by cable operators, content suppliers and so on across the value chain. This extends to ordering information, billing information, service quality measurements and so on, but this infrastructure and a common way of communicating that information doesnít yet exist. Bundling – the killer app IPTV on its own isnít necessarily all that interesting to customers whoíve seen TV all their lives, but when you start combining it with other communications services, then youíre talking. For example, if you are watching a movie on your TV and have to leave home, wouldnít it be nice if you could bring that film with you and view it on your cell phone or a screen in your car? Being able to hand off seamlessly whatever you are watching from device to device – be it PC to TV to mobile or any combination thereof – will attract a lot of interest. With another service, if the phone rings while youíre watching TV a screen might pop up showing you who is calling. If you take the call, you push a button and your live TV programme pauses while you answer the phone and resumes where you left off when you hang up. These are the sort of packages that make IPTV really interesting as opposed to just another way to watch TV. How can you deliver all these services as a tightly integrated package when the infrastructure consists of a variety of different legacy systems for voice, messaging, TV, and broadband services? Providers around the world are starting to offer quad-play, providing their customers with cable, mobile, fixed-line and broadband in a single package. Despite the hype and the advertising what you have, most often, are four completely separate services. Most providers are working diligently to integrate these services, but it will probably take several years to do so. In the meantime, it is quite a chore to bundle all these services seamlessly into a single package when they were originally engineered as stand-alone packages working in watertight, self-sufficient compartments. It is easy to demonstrate IPTV and mobile TV under highly controlled conditions at a tradeshow booth, but how do you scale it up to work on a daily basis with millions of customers in the real world? That is the acid test operators must pass if they are to compete with todayís tried and true, taken for granted, TV services. Once carriers can deliver a feature-rich IPTV service that works the first time, and every time, they can sit back and relaxÖ until the next big service comes along!