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Cable Curious About IPTV Possibilities

ORLANDO, Fla. -- TelcoTV -- Cable guys weren't exactly thick on the ground here this week, but cable's presence could be felt as MSOs of all sizes begin to investigate how they can start to migrate more of their video services to the IP world.

Here at the show, vendors and operators alike acknowledged that cable's interest in IPTV has grown significantly in recent months, noting that several representatives from MSOs and organizations such as CableLabs were doing some IPTV tire-kicking and general recon on the TelcoTV floor.

Generally speaking, IPTV discussions with MSOs have reached the "serious side" over the last six to eight months, said Craig Knudsen, director of business development, IPTV, for Tandberg Television , which is attacking Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Mediaroom package with an IPTV middleware of its own. "The level of [cable] interest in IPTV has clearly been raised," Knudsen added.

Although cable's giving more attention to IPTV, Knudsen notes that most cable operators won't simply flip everything over to IP all at once. Instead, they'll phase in IPTV so MSOs can preserve their investment in millions of digital boxes that use QAM-based video. If that's the case, look for cable to start to look a bit more like Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) FiOS, in that they'll kick off the migration using a hybrid video delivery system that uses both QAM and IP.

Given that scenario, operators could migrate some linear and on-demand fare to the IP world as IPTV boxes are introduced, but Knudsen sees much of the early traction involving IP video to PCs. "Broadcast [TV] will be the last thing to go IP," Knudsen predicted.

Some IPTV box makers also expect some bigger cable involvement next year. "Cable is going beyond service experiments with IPTV," says Entone Inc. CEO Steve McKay, who expects some "significant deployments" with MSOs next year.

But that doesn't mean IPTV boxes are about to show up at MSO warehouses by the truckload anytime soon. It means the amount of action is starting to rise above the zero level. "I don't want to suggest a tidal wave of activity, but there is activity," McKay clarified.

But progress is progress. "Cable has been an off-limits suicide march" for IPTV box makers looking to make a dent in the Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)/Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) U.S. cable box duopoly, McKay added. So at least it sounds like calls are being returned these days.

What's helping now is the fact that some smaller telcos that offer video on older hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) are looking to unify those video services with IPTV services they also deliver over DSL or fiber-to-the-home infrastructures. One way to do that is to migrate the RF-based HFC video services to IP, allowing the telco to market a common set of video service tiers on all its plant types.

A recent example of that is Butler-Bremmer Communications, an Iowa-based operator that is delivering IPTV services over Docsis 3.0 using Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT)'s "Direct-2-Edge" (D2E) architecture. (See Iowa Cabler Gets Wired for IPTV.)

GoBackTV Inc. , meanwhile, is using a Docsis 2.0-based "drop-in" approach to help Tier 2 and Tier 3 telcos and cable MSOs around the globe deliver IPTV over HFC plant. (See GoBackTV Lets Cable Cos. 'Drop In' IPTV .)

The company has 21 commercial cable IPTV deployments worldwide, according to Rei Brockett, GoBackTV's VP of marketing. A few on that list include RTEC Communications (Ridgeville Telephone Company in Ohio), H & B Communications (Kansas), OTEC Telecom (Ottoville Mutual Telephone Company in Ohio), A+ (Denmark), and Visabeira (Angola).

But not all MSOs are looking at IP to unify their HFC video offerings with existing IPTV services.

Here at the show, some larger MSOs were on a fact-finding mission to learn more about IPTV and how it could be adapted to cable, and not just because the move gives them access to cheaper set-tops and the promise of a less expensive delivery platform.

They're also anxious to see how IPTV can accelerate so-called "service velocity" for interactive video applications, said an exec from one top-five U.S. cable MSO.

Although tru2way is supposed to help out in that area, it's not broadly deployed yet. At the same time, a lot of development efforts are centered on IPTV applications and services. But that doesn’t necessarily mean tru2way will be a nonstarter. At the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo in Denver last month, cable execs insisted tru2way was flexible enough to support IP apps. (See SCTE Expo: MSOs Prep IPTV Push and Rogers Seeks Tru2way Alternative .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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