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TV Gets Smarter: Network technologies and architecture

April 29, 2011

Internet protocol television (IPTV) is emerging as the new standard in offering a better TV experience and has already generated a huge demand globally. According to ABI Research, IPTV subscriptions reached 46.2 million worldwide in 2010 and are anticipated to witness a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23 per cent to 131.6 million by end-2015.

Mobile TV too has gained momentum in the past few years and is an important area for telecom operators to leverage, in order to increase revenues through the deployment of latest network technologies like 3G and 4G.

IPTV network elements

IPTV is a system through which entertainment video and related services like live TV, video-on-demand (VoD) and interactive TV are delivered to subscribers across an access-agnostic packet switched network in a secure and reliable manner. The network employs IP protocol, such as the internet and broadband internet access networks, instead of the traditional radio frequency (RF) broadcast, satellite signal and cable TV formats.

IPTV systems have a number of key components, which are often referred to as the ecosystem. Each of these elements can have an impact on IPTV’s quality of experience and quality of service (QoS), which are considered as vital parameters to evaluate the end-product received by the subscriber. Some of the most important components are as follows:

Video head end: This is composed of a video encoder/transcoder/stream processor and is responsible for the conversion of an input stream in various formats into a digital compressed stream targeting the consumer premises equipment. It also comprises video servers which are computer-based multistream playout devices connected to large storage systems.

Service provider core/edge network: This connects the access networks to the customer premises. It can be a single national distribution network running gigabit Ethernet or IP/MPLS along with a multitude of regional distribution networks running carrier grade Ethernet.

Access network: The access network acts as the link from the service provider to the individual household. Technologies such as ADSL2, FTTx, Wi-Max and DVB-H are capable of providing the bandwidth essential for delivering TV services to the household or the receiving equipment.

IPTV enabler: It represents the software and hardware infrastructure which connects all IPTV components. It consists of a subscriber-facing electronic program guide and an application control system.

Home network: The home network distributes IPTV service through a set-top box (STB) that acts as the end- point in the home network to which the TV set is connected. It is used to interface between the IPTV services provided by the network and the user.

Access network technologies and triple play

An important concept in the IPTV space today is triple-play services, which enable the provision of  TV (video), telephone (voice) and the internet (data) through the same IP network. Triple-play services require broadband with high bandwidth capability and can be delivered to the home premises through specific access technologies.

The broadband connection between the service provider and the customer premises, also referred to as the “last mile”, can be established using a variety of technologies. Access network technologies serve as a vital component of the transport network used to reach the subscriber through the STB.

The key technologies available today are xDSL, coaxial hybrid fibre cable (HFC) and fibre technologies such as fibre-to-the-node, which help extend the reach of IPTV services to customers.

xDSL uses copper twisted pair infrastructure with bandwidth capability being distance limited, thus restricting either the bandwidth delivered to the consumer or the service coverage area. Basic DSL and ADSL are restricted in terms of bandwidth capabilities, thus making it difficult to offer triple-play services over these technologies. Other enhancements of xDSL, namely, ADSL2+ and VDSL2, show greater potential for delivering triple-play services as they offer adequate bandwidth combined with appropriate QoS controls.

HFC refers to a broadband network that unites both optic fibre and coaxial cable, using coaxial cables to run the last mile connecting the subscriber to the high speed fibre backbone. HFC provides higher bandwidth over greater distances, and is thus a more efficient medium than xDSL.

The trend for broadband network deployment is becoming more focused on the FTTx technology and less on DSL and HFC. FTTx or optic fibre cable can accomplish high bandwidth data over long distances. Active fibre to the premises and passive optical networking (PON) are the two key fibre systems being deployed in the present scenario. Gigabit passive optical network, an evolution of the PON standard, allows gigabit connectivity via optic cable to the premises, thus supporting higher rates and enhanced security.

In comparison to other access technologies, the cost of installation of FTTx tends to be much higher. However, it offers the advantage of providing dedicated fibre to each subscriber, thus offering simultaneous video, voice and data services. Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) also gives the service provider the flexibility to upgrade the system in the future and delivers higher bandwidth with minimum or no change in the overall architecture.

Wi-Max is a standards-based technology that enables the provision of  last mile wireless broadband connectivity. The technology offers a lower-cost alternative to other access technologies like FTTx or xDSL. It can deliver simultaneous voice, video and data services over microwave radio frequency (RF) spectrum to stationary or moving users, thus enabling easy broadband access. Wi-Max has a lot of potential as a substitute to DSL or cable modem in areas where such technologies are not available.

Mobile TV

Mobile data usage has been rising steadily over the past few years, with global mobile data traffic witnessing a strong increase of 159 per cent in 2010, and expected to record a CAGR of 92 per cent during 2010-15. The growth momentum in the mobile industry has persisted, driven by the increased adoption of smartphones along with the introduction of network technologies like 3G which offer high bandwidth designed for faster data transfer.

With the increase in mobile network connectivity speeds, the average bit rate of content accessed through the mobile network is also expected to rise. Mobile network connectivity speeds, which doubled during 2009-10, are anticipated to grow tenfold by 2015. As per Cisco estimates, the average mobile network connectivity speed of 215 kbps in 2010 will exceed 2.2 Mbps in 2015, growing at a CAGR of 60 per cent over this period.

Mobile TV services are fast becoming an essential part of users’ lives. Mobile TV, which has gained momentum only recently, is resulting in an increasing demand for network technologies that can deliver higher bandwidth for faster data download speeds.

Mobile network technologies

3G and 4G networks

3G offers significant enhancements over previous wireless technologies. These include faster data transmission speeds, greater network capacity and advanced multimedia access, thus providing mobile TV support and enhanced video streaming. Recent 3G releases, denoted as 3.5G and 3.75G, also offer high speed mobile broadband access through smartphones.

Although 3G networks allow subscribers to access mobile TV, in practice, these technologies face capacity constraint issues while providing services. Cellular networks find it increasingly difficult to offer high quality mobile TV services that require a streaming speed of 0.7 Mbps to 1.5 Mbps, especially at times of peak usage. While some mobile networks are accomplished in delivering these speeds, they find it tough to provide such speeds on a consistent basis.

However, 3G is being replaced by 4G, on account of its limitation in data-intensive technologies during peak utilisation coupled with its lack of scaling capability in order to address future data traffic patterns associated with mobile broadband use. 4G offers higher bandwidth than 3G, thereby allowing carriers to offer faster data transmission speeds and hence, a superior mobile TV experience.

The existing 4G technologies, Wi-Max as well as long term evolution (LTE), are expected to shape the future of the mobile broadband market. Both LTE and Wi-Max technologies enable 4G wireless data networks to deliver internet services to mobile phones at very high speeds.

Wi-Max displays ultra-high spectrum efficiency that enables operators to offer users services such as internet browsing, streaming media and VoD.

LTE is a new standard of mobile network technology that has been designed to enhance the capacity and speed of telecom networks. It has the capacity to support the ever-rising demand for connectivity from new-generation consumer devices designed for high-end mobile applications. For consumers, it means faster mobile downloads and the ability to share videos and large files wirelessly with faster streaming speeds.

While Wi-Max has peak wireless data speeds of up to 6 Mbps on the downstream and 1 Mbps for sending data upstream, LTE offers download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 50 Mbps, and supports scalable carrier bandwidths from 1.4 MHz to 20 MHz.

Going forward, Wi-Max and LTE will help service providers to offer wireless broadband services that would enable faster downloads, video sharing and mobile TV with more channels and great quality.

IPTV is the next step for the television medium, with its growth being enabled by the transition from analog to digital video. The successful implementation of a triple-play solution requires a high performance IP network such as FTTx or Wi-Max. 

Further, 2.5G and 3G networks will continue to serve voice and mobile data in the near future, but with an increase in mobile broadband data usage, these networks would face capacity constraints. Hence, the deployment of new high bandwidth network technologies such as 4G is inevitable.


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