When Justin Lebbon, the guy behind videonet, read my latest blog post on the significance of Ineoquest’s winning a deal with France Télévisions, he pointed out that to get onto Videonet, posts have to be longer. It probably wasn’t meant that way, but it felt a bit condescending.
Hmmpf! So I started wondering why I'd felt the urge to write just a short post on a seemingly run-of-the-mill press release about yet another sale.
I had written about the customer being a TV station and the vendor being the leader in head-end monitoring from the IPTV space, so that maybe we were going towards a global leader in the IP TV (notice the space) monitoring space. So with just one small point to make I had one short blog entry to post.
But Justin’s point has been irking me to dig a bit deeper.
It turns out I wrote about a tree that was hiding a forest.
The TV world relies more and more heavily on IP for contribution, transport and distribution to and within the home. At the same time, the whole marketplace is also maturing. Different stakeholders are beginning to emerge and a new content economy will eventually stabilize.
We still don’t know if our IPTV world will become a market dominated by vertical or horizontal stakeholders or maybe something in between.
In the vertical world, content would flow from one stakeholder’s environment through another’s to be delivered to customers of yet another network. To catch-up on a missed Channel 4 program you might use a C4 widget on you TV that stream content through a network managed by Cable & Wireless. But for a BBC program you’d use iPlayer. We would seem to be headed in that direction if the Ineoquest - France Télévisions deal is at all significant. Service Level Agreements or SLAs are paramount to remain competitive in such a world. What better than QoE measurement to manage such agreements?
In the second more horizontal world, the same stakeholders would be producing and delivering content-based services to their own customers. Walled garden IPTV or Telco-TV is of this world. TV stations would carry on not caring all that much about IP quality because it wouldn’t be their problem. Although not IPTV, Sky’s products are from this world where the same company produces much of the content and delivers it themselves. Market regulators would hopefully ensure that customers would rarely be more than a click away from the competing service and in this world (looks like Britain pulled a short straw on this), QoE would remain the best metric to work on to control churn.
TV stations are still basically Content producing organisations. When transmitting through traditional broadcast networks they can always ascertain the quality of delivery by the random sampling of a few points. This worked fine for traditional analogue terrestrial and satellite, and also to a certain extent for digital terrestrial, cable and satellite.
IPTV represents extra difficulties because not only do the video streams have to go through many more layers in the network. Operators are still in many cases just learning how to properly configure IP networks for video. Fierce competition is also forcing them to use underlying infrastructure that is at the bleeding-edge of new technology.
However, if IPTV were only about Live TV, it would just be harder to get right, basically playing in the same ball court as before.
What makes quality management so different is that IPTV services have always been about more than live TV. From the source of video signal to TV set we’re moving from a one-to-many to a one-to-one architecture. As soon as VoD, delinearization or Social TV show their scary heads, we shall have to take a whole quantum leap into another level of complexity.
I haven’t seen any reliable and public stats for VoD session quality in managed networks, but you only need to glance at some Web forums to see that things aren’t as rosy as VoD system vendors and operators would have us believe, even in a walled garden environment where QoS is supposedly guaranteed. I’ve been using such a managed service at home for 5 years now and with maybe 60 films rented, I can say that about one time in 10 the VoD viewing experience gets interrupted or even cancelled. If I’m then prepared to spend 10 minutes to half an hour on the phone, I can get a refund.
Now if I ask you where are TV stations focussing their attention at the moment, the BBC’s iPlayer will probably come to mind. With an iPlayer type of service TV stations’ increase the value of their own content by making it available after airtime (I guess a very expensive premium service will one day let you access the content before airtime). Their content is being transmitted over IP on a one-to-one basis using their brand name. So TV stations are getting caught up in the Quality of Experience issues themselves.
But beyond the iPlayer example, as the IPTV ecosystem matures, different stakeholders are emerging. In some markets, one operator will provide head-end services for another competitor. Elsewhere, wholesaling is becoming commonplace. Take for example Cable & Wireless in the UK who can carry IPTV streams from a third party head end to someone else’s DSLAM. Their responsibility - enshrined in an SLA - is to deliver the content with the same quality the received it. Traditional network QoS metrics don’t always capture the whole picture. If the TV service is also monitored end-to-end wholesalers can commit to SLA’s.
Here in France one sees some pretty complex setups with for example a Bouygues Telecom IPTV customer having a service delivered through an SFR network when the video head end service is provided by Canal+. In this case Bouygues Telecom would also have an agreement with Orange to rent the last mile.
Over-the-Top or OTT content has mainly been associated with free YouTube like services; that too is changing. Even in the unlikely event that it does stay totally free, there’s only one YouTube so the quality of service delivered to people’s sitting rooms will be a key differentiator.
The emerging playing field forces the larger content creators like France Télévisions to look further down the distribution line. Even as far down as the person in front of the screen. Their distribution possibilities are also exploding while presenting differing technical challenges in terms of Quality of Experience. In the IP space, should they concentrate their efforts on Telco-TV distribution or should they be putting more effort into their own OTT distribution? TV widgets present one of the greatest threats and opportunities they have seen for years.
To remain relevant and retain their independence TV stations will seek means of leverage to control or at least to influence different distribution channels or sometimes just to be able to make an informed choice as to which one to use. Their content represents their fundamental value so it’s only not surprising that they’ll want to protect both its quality and its integrity.
That’s why – Justin- I believe the Ineoquest deal is significant. Now will you post this?