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Behind the Acronym

In September, I managed to spend a day at International Broadcasting Conference (IBC), held at the sprawling and over-full RAI Center in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In addition to the usual booths from the electronics giants ? Sony, Cisco, and Philips to name a few ?peddling cameras, editing gear, and other broadcast essentials, there were several stands and exhibits devoted to a pair of hot emerging technologies ?mobile digital TV, or DVB-H in Europe, and IPTV.

So, an HD broadcast of a football game might be identified as PID 48 in the PMT and consist of an HD video stream (PID 0 x 0041) and a Dolby Digital AC-3 audio soundtrack (PID 0 x 0044). The receiver picks off any packets using these PIDs and re-assembles them into an HD picture with 5.1-channel surround.

That's exactly the system used to distribute digital TV via cable, satellite, or terrestrial connections. And IPTV isn't limited these types of transmissions, as the only real issue is bandwidth. MPEG packets can be moved in other ways, such as over a fiber-optic connection or through fast and wide wireless nodes.

In both cases, the MPEG structure remains the same. But the receiver must have an IP address so that the content provider can deliver the programming. Of course, any device that can decode the MPEG packets and encode them to video and audio can also play back a TV show, which is why you see the simultaneous use of a cell phone, laptop, and HDTV in the AT&T commercials.

As so often the case, everyone is abuzz about the technology, that few really understand.

As so often the case, everyone is abuzz about the technology, that few really understand.

CABLE'S CONCERNS

Does your home cable TV provider bundle broadband and TV content through the same wire? With IPTV, you could dump the TV service and rely exclusively on the broadband connection, if it was fast enough (most aren't).

That's a scary thought to cable system operators. Comcast and Time Warner are fighting efforts by Verizon and AT&T to skirt time-intensive municipality-by-municipality franchise agreements and simply obtain a statewide franchise to begin wiring up and delivering their IPTV services.

As I mentioned earlier, Verizon isn't delivering pure IPTV, yet. For now, its video services employ the same quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) system used by cable companies. Eventually, it will shift to 100 percent IP addressing of MPEG packets. In contrast, AT&T's system qualifies as true IPTV, but it is only rolling it out on a limited trial basis as of this writing.

Even so, the crowd of IPTV wannabes is getting bigger each month. At IBC, Motorola, Samsung, Thomson, Pace, and others showed IPTV set-top receivers. Many companies demonstrated customized electronic program guides, while others showed multiplatform encoding software and hardware to optimize viewing for both small and large screens.

Provided enough bandwidth is available, IPTV could replace many of the older video delivery systems we've come to know and love. It's likely cable companies would eventually move to 100 percent IP distribution of TV content, if Verizon and AT&T are successful. Even DirecTV and Dish could soon be competing with terrestrial wireless delivery of broadband services.

You can be sure that where there's fast broadband, IPTV is sure to follow.

Contributing editor Pete Putman is president of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, Pa. You can reach him at pete@hdtvexpert.com.



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