IPTV Challenges and Opportunities

August 2007, Volume 1
IPTV Challenges and Opportunities

Internet protocol television (IPTV) is rapidly becoming one of the most talked-about emerging services this year. Major service providers around the world have made IPTV an important element of their service portfolio. There are many challenges to delivering video over an IP infrastructure compared to delivering traditional voice and Internet services.

The IPTV service infrastructure layer as defined today has multiple components, including video on demand (VoD) servers, video head-end systems, middleware, set-top boxes (STBs), and security and digital rights management software. Typically this infrastructure rides on top of a network layer that consists of switches, routers, and transmission systems. With the rapid evolution over the past few years of IPTV services, the relationships between network and service layer infrastructures have not been well defined. Integration points and the various components interacting with each other from an end-to-end perspective can be a relatively complex task.
Some of these challenges can be seen as opportunities and will require strong collaboration between equipment vendors and service providers to ensure a high-quality end-to-end IPTV service and experience for the consumer.

Scaling the Network
There are several barriers to entry in today’s network architectures that will need to be addressed to support a robust and scalable IPTV service delivery platform. Service providers worldwide are beginning to transition from the traditional asynchronous transfer mode (ATM)-based networks to Ethernet, IP multiprotocol label switching (MPLS)-based networks. With the network needing to handle video applications that are real time in nature, optimizing and in some cases redesigning existing broadband networks for IP video delivery is an imperative. Service providers are evaluating many of the tradeoffs (i.e., cost, performance, complexity) among various architectural options that are available.

The edge/aggregation routing and switching has to be centralized to support a scalable IPTV service. Today’s IPTV service is pushing traditional edge-based routing elements to their limits in terms of scalability, and routers are having to handle multiple service interfaces based on the type of IPTV services being deployed. Most service providers have to upgrade and or redesign existing edge-based networks through efforts such as consolidating edge-based routing services into a single, next-generation, dynamically scalable device that can grow based on the scaling requirements of the business. As the networks scale, they have to evolve from single-tier architectures to multi-tier architectures.

One critical element is the scaling of bandwidth and applying the right bandwidth modeling parameters in support of a scalable IP video service. This is a critical imperative for operators to ensure real-time delivery of video services. We cannot also underestimate QoS, policy requirements, and business rules that need to be put in place to effectively scale the network.
Given the real-time nature of video services, the requirements for providing an always-on service is critical at the edge and aggregation layer of IPTV services. Objectives such as single-point failure and hitless switchover with a fault-tolerant operating system need to be a very important consideration in the overall design and architecture of the IPTV service. Routers need to be able to support nonstop routing on a micro-level basis.

Software Integration Challenges
The cable MSO world has traditionally been dominated by a relatively small number of suppliers; this is not the case for service providers delivering IPTV service. They are faced with a host of suppliers and technology start-ups in addition to incumbent vendors that provide a host of software integration challenges.

Providers are faced with integration of relatively immature, unproven middleware at the service infrastructure layer with a host of suppliers. While most suppliers have well-defined application programming interfaces and software development toolkits, the lack of standardization and interoperability between suppliers coupled with the changing service requirements forces the suppliers to customize some of the software development. Hence, deployment requires end-to-end quality assurance testing of all components and the investment in an end-to-end testing infrastructure, something most service providers don’t do today.

Many IPTV providers in the early days of IPTV deployment wrote their own middleware platform on which they delivered IP-based video services. As the IPTV market over the past three years has matured, more open, standards-based systems are providing service providers the tools and capabilities to deliver high-quality IPTV services.

Middleware in an IPTV environment has to take into account the subscribers’ viewing experience, the various service packages being offered to the consumer, and the connection of myriad interfaces to the various external systems such as STBs, VoD servers, and the various elements of the underlying network infrastructure.

Scaling the middleware platform is a key imperative. Provisioning an IPTV service with millions of subscribers while maintaining a satisfying subscriber viewing experience can be a challenge. Major software suppliers such as Microsoft TV, Siemens, and Orca Interactive are working to ensure their middleware will scale to the needs of the service providers.

System integration between all components and layers is almost becoming an imperative to ensure effective deployment and minimize service-related issues after deployment.
IPTV is rapidly becoming a very high-priority residential service opportunity for operators worldwide. The future of IPTV looks very bright and has a strong promise for telco operators and vendors alike. The numerous challenges will be overcome as more operators pioneer the deployment of IPTV services globally.

Educational content provided by Sudhir Ispahani, CEO, Alpha Global Partners