Outside of a new FCC report on a la carte programming, the big topic last week was Network Neutrality, and the resulting debate is providing a clear look at what is at stake and for whom.
The telcos, for starters, discussed the idea of offering faster access to consumers who might be willing to pay for it, while others posited why they should provide a "free lunch" to third-parties that attach their services to broadband networks that the telcos have spent good money building.
It was reported, for example, that BellSouth is considering offering increased speeds to services such as the studio-backed Movielink for a cut (about 10 percent) of the price of the rental.
Meanwhile, "over-the-top" service providers (ie. those that offer Internet services but don't necessarily have a financial arrangement with the telco or cable operator providing the network) are complaining that they could be disadvantaged by a two-tier Internet market and that, in turn, could stifle innovation.
The whole idea of charging a bit more is not really a new concept; not by a long-shot, especially in the cable arena. It's called quality of service (QoS), a key piece of DOCSIS 1.1, PacketCable 1.x and PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM), the latter commonly applied to "bandwidth-on-demand" and broadband "turbo" buttons. Buckeye Cable announced plans for such a service earlier this month, but many other MSOs will soon follow suit with announcements about their own trials and deployments.
Many cable operators already offer QoS-enabled VoIP services, while a service like Vonage offers its service via the "best effort" speed and latency offered by the cable network at any given time. That "best effort" can fluctuate depending on variables such as network volume, but priority is always give to the voice packets attached to the service enabled by the operator's PacketCable architecture.
While digital music and VoIP were the first to test the Net Neutrality waters, video is the next Internet frontier, and one that could change some very longstanding television and movie business models. A day not does go by now it seems without some announcements from CE vendors or studios and programmers about an over-the-top video service, so you can bet that that debate will only grow louder and perhaps meaner in the months to come.
Whose side are you on, and why? I'll share some of your thoughts in an upcoming issue.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Editor in Chief, CED magazine and xOD Capsule
ICTV switches gears with acquisition
Interactive television specialist ICTV Inc. has struck a merger with Switched Media, a provider of "mass customization" of live video streams.
The combined company, which will retain the ICTV name, will collaborate on personalized, "Web-driven" iTV fare via the combination of Switched Media's InStream platform and ICTV's HeadendWare system.
But what does that mean exactly?
ICTV President & CEO Jeff Miller said Switched Media, a San-Francisco-based company founded in 2004, will give ICTV the ability to do something it couldn't before: manipulate live video and inject interactivity into the video stream itself. The ICTV-Switched Media combo, he said, will gain the ability to distribute enhanced TV apps (ie. "bound" apps synced with live programming) without the need for the set-top.
Switched Media's InStream system houses live stream video processing capabilities that include graphic overlays and animations.
HeadendWare, meanwhile, places the majority of the processing power at an operator's headend, enabling apps to run on widely-deployed "thin-client" digital set-top boxes.
The system "allows us to create a unified and immersive personalized video application…without [using] the set-top too much [but] using standard Web technology," Miller said, noting that the Switched Media acquisition marks "the first of several puzzle pieces" ICTV will add toward its solution for the future.
ICTV plans to demonstrate the combination later this month at the CableLabs Winter Conference in Colorado Springs. There, it will show off a mosaic video navigation application that incorporates personalization.
All four of Switched Media's employees will join Los Gatos, Calif.-based ICTV. Ed Forman, the CEO and co-founder of Switched Media (as well as a former ICTV exec), is rejoining ICTV as EVP and COO. Other Switched Media co-founders to join ICTV include Michael Taylor, who becomes ICTV's SVP of business development and distribution; and Jeremy Edmonds, who joins ICTV as system architect. An unnamed developer from Switched Media will also join ICTV.
Comcast preps Nielsen VOD trial
Comcast Cable is preparing to test a new video-on-demand (VOD) measurement and reporting service from TV ratings specialist Nielsen Entertainment.
Comcast said it will launch the trial sometime in Q1 2006. The MSO did not name any deployment markets, but it reportedly completed a three-month VOD viewership study with Nielsen in Philadelphia.
Nielsen said its On Demand platform will anonymously measure and report aggregate customer VOD usage data, information that will surely be of massive importance to advertisers that are mulling whether to apply promotional dollars toward the burgeoning service.
The trial "will extend our commitment to providing accurate and timely reporting of aggregate On Demand usage," said Page Thompson, Comcast's SVP and GM of video products, in a statement.
Nielsen isn't the only company helping Comcast with its VOD measurements. Last August, the MSO inked a multi-year, non-exclusive deal to deploy Rentrak Corp.'s OnDemand Essentials system, which reports and analyzes aggregate VOD data.
Comcast, which offers about 3,800 titles on-demand, noted that it served up 1.4 billion VOD programs in 2005, more than double the total from 2004.
NBC Universal goes over-the-top with Aeon
NBC Universal has struck a deal to offer a raft of content on-demand to broadband-enabled set-tops from Aeon Digital.
Under the agreement, consumers who purchase Aeon's DV-220 set-tops will be able to rent Universal films such as Ray, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Skeleton Key, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Constant Gardener. Universal will also serve up more TV-centric fare such as Jerry Springer: Uncensored and episodes from the Blind Date franchise.
The deal marks the latest in a trend that is seeing content owners strike deals that deliver their fare over high-speed Internet connections.
"NBC Universal is continually looking for alternative ways for consumers to enjoy our content," said NBC Universal Cable SVP, New Media and Chief Financial Officer Jean-Briac Perrette, in a statement.
Aeon plans to launch the DV-220 this spring. The box will come outfitted with a digital video recorder, a wireless router and firewall, and an embedded electronic program guide.
iTV sector becoming flush with poker power
Operators and iTV application developers are jumping on the poker bandwagon in a big way.
The most recent evidence is Blue Ridge Communications' debut of multi-player versions of Texas Hold'em and billiards through its long-running partnership with NTN Buzztime.
Blue Ridge will offer the Buzztime iTV game service to more than 30,000 digital subs in Western Pennsylvania. The multi-player element will allow up to ten cable subs to play at the same "virtual" poker table, or two billiards players at each pool table.
According to Buzztime, about 90 million hands of multi-player Texas Hold'em were played last year via its gaming partnerships with restaurants and sports bars in North America. It hopes to replicate that success in the digital cable environment. But Buzztime isn't the only company making a big interactive poker push.
Last week, PixelPlay signed an exclusive deal with WPT Enterprises to develop and distribute casino games for iTV platforms.
Under the arrangement, PixelPlay will develop a range of single-player and multiplayer Texas Hold'Em games based on the popular World Poker Tour brand. PixelPlay, the result of a merger between PlayTV and Pixel Technologies about a year ago, will also create tutorials for novice and expert players, as well as leader boards and prize competitions.
PixelPlay and WPT Enterprises plan to develop other casino games for 2007.
On the iTV front, PixelPlay has deployments with Cablevision Systems Corp., EchoStar Communications and Canadian DBS service provider Bell ExpressVu.
Cox to add mosaics, impulse capabilities
Cox Communications is preparing to introduce a number of navigational upgrades, including video mosaics and "impulse" subscription apps, in "select" markets later this year.
Cox did not name those markets, but they will enlist the 2.7 version of Aptiv Digital Inc.'s Passport DCT and Passport Echo set-top navigation software.
The guide's Interactive Video Mosaic app supplies "thumbnail" videos of several channels and the audio of the thumbnail that is selected by the viewer. The new "iSubscribe" feature allows customers to access video-on-demand and to purchase other premium services with their remotes.
"We are very pleased to continue to serve Cox Communications by providing them with new technologies designed to enhance their video service offerings," said Aptiv President & CEO Neil Jones, in a statement.
Aptiv's relationship with Cox moving forward was questioned last week when the MSO announced a long-term deal with Gemstar-TV Guide International. Although the operator said it plans to work with Aptiv and Scientific-Atlanta, its existing IPG vendors, on some new projects, the MSO also expects to introduce Gemstar's IPG platform sometime in early 2007.
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We are making changes and additions (including international deployments) to our
Web-based "living" deployment chart. If you have a new deployment to report for the VOD Scorecard and the Web-based deployment chart, please contact CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner.