Video software

Scaling IPTV: Progress at SBC

SAN DIEGO -- Telco TV Convention -- Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) are progressing in the challenging task of scaling up SBC Communications Inc.’s IPTV solution for use by hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users, sources here say. (See SBC Stretches Lightspeed Timeline .)

Light Reading reported last spring that Microsoft's IPTV middleware required one server for every 10 subscribers in order for the system's instantaneous channel-changing to work properly. (See SBC, Microsoft Defend Lightspeed.) A source close to the situation says the Microsoft middleware can now service far more subscribers -- into the thousands -- with a single server.

The source adds, however, that the scaleability of SBC’s video distribution system still has a long way to go. SBC says it will reach 17 million households with fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) and another 1 million greenfield residences using fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) by mid-2008. (See SBC on Lightspeed: Full Fiber Ahead.)

SBC’s executive director of video network planning, Paul Whitehead, spoke to a crowd of around a thousand here this morning -- mainly IPTV arms dealers and employees of U.S. IOCs.

He wasn’t too far into his presentation before the scaling issue came up. “The question is always, 'Can you scale IPTV?' ” Whitehead said. “And the answer is 'Yes.' And, yes, you’ve got to have a lot of servers... but we’re doing it...

“Despite a tremendous amount of swirl in the press," Whitehead continued, SBC's Microsoft TV solution will scale efficiently in time for mass-market rollout. Microsoft and SBC officials have been defensive about the issue since negative media reports surfaced last May. (See Swisscom IPTV Stall Sends Shivers.) "Sometimes I barely recognize this project, based on what I read about it in the press,” Whitehead bristled.

Many in the industry agree that Microsoft, Alcatel, and SBC will eventually get it right. (See Alcatel & Microsoft Going Steady.) “If you’ve got infinite brainpower and infinite resources to do something, as Microsoft does, you know they are eventually going to make it all work,” one IPTV equipment provider source here tells Light Reading.

Indeed most in the IPTV business are hoping that it does work, and the sooner the better. SBC's success might prompt other Tier 1 and Tier 2 carriers in the U.S. to speed the rollouts of their own systems, which would benefit everyone selling IPTV-related goods and services.

Several SBC, Microsoft, and Alcatel execs gave keynotes and sat on panels here, and they were all on message: SBC IPTV will roll out as planned, and it will change the way people watch TV. One notices that the Microsoft and Alcatel spokespeople make it a point to add: “Oh, and what we’re doing is really, really hard.” (See SBC Selects Microsoft for IPTV.)

“A lot of people have put their blood, sweat and tears into this thing over the last three years,” Whitehead says. "A lot of people have worked their rear ends off to make this work."

Whitehead’s presentation included several slides of SBC’s “super head end” in San Antonio. They showed the SBC dish farm, control stations, and banks of monitors. One slide featured a wall of server racks containing literally hundreds of servers, and room remained for hundreds more. “As you can see, we’re building for the future." (See Inside SBC's IPTV Factory.)

SBC trials with 40 of its employees will conclude at the end of the year, and a “scaled trial” of many more users will commence in 2006. Whitehead added that SBC intends to use in-home coaxial cable to wire up all TVs in a household, avoiding costly CAT-5 rewires.

Project Lightspeed will deliver about 25 Mbit/s of bandwidth to the household for video, voice, and data services, Whitehead said. With MPEG-4 compression now squeezing HDTV streams to a throughput requirement of less than 10 Mbit/s, most agree that the 25 Mbit/s will be sufficient.

Many of the hallway conversations here concerned the telcos’ ability to offer something new in order to convince cable and satellite subscribers to switch over when the time comes. (See IPTV vs Me-Too TV.)

But Whitehead, being a network guy, stressed the basics first: “At SBC, making sure we have good picture quality in standard definition is really part of our plans. [We’re concerned about] every TV in the house having digital picture quality; every TV in the house has to have the same interface and the same DVR capability." (See IPTV Alters Network Landscape.)

Like most of the industry, Whitehead acknowledges that the convergence of SBC's various networks and services onto one IP-based delivery platform is the way to offer the integrated services the cable guys can't.

“Clearly one of the reasons we’re getting into IPTV is that we are really trying to do the quad play," Whitehead said, referring to the VOIP, IPTV, high-speed data, and wireless services in the Project Lightspeed offering.

"If we really want to compete in the future we really have too many networks. We are convinced that we are really going to take a lot of cost out by combining those networks and putting all our services on an IP network.”

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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