The annual IPTV World Forum in London is now a firm fixture in the conference calendar. This year the three-day event at Olympia in London also absorbed the Connected Home and TV Over Net conferences. It also saw the presentation of the first IPTV World Series Awards.

According to Gary Shultz of MRG, his research company has counted 576 IPTV service operators globally, defined as providers of video over managed networks.

Arjang Zadeh of Accenture had an important message for current and prospective service providers. He pointed out that television services are low margin compared to broadband. Delivering video services is not a simple technical or operational proposition. “Despite industry hype, this is not top of the mind for consumers,” he warned. “The biggest shift in the market is not satellite or cable to IPTV,” he said “but broadcast TV to web-based TV on the PC”.

Eric Abensur of Orange, which is planning to launch an IPTV service in the United Kingdom later in the year, sees it as the most competitive television market in Europe, if not the world. As part of France Telecom, Orange already has around 600,000 IPTV subscribers, mainly in France, currently making it the second largest operator in the World. However, he had apparently not heard of Joost, a planned service from the creators of Skype. Asked about such ‘over the top’ broadband video services, he said: “For me it’s not IPTV. Tell me why it’s a threat.” Consumption of network bandwidth might be one suggestion.

Ashley Highfield of the BBC, which is proposing to provide its programming over broadband, was cautious about the prospects for operator services, pointing out that the recently launched BT Vision platform had so far delivered only 3,000 hybrid boxes to consumers. Instead, he was going to “focus on the vastly bigger opportunity” of over 13 million broadband homes in the UK.

He suggested that IPTV will be for some years predominantly a complementary service, although it might one day be a substitute for satellite or terrestrial television. “The attempt to make IP services mimic television is flawed,” he said “because television as we know it just works”. He suggested that “IPTV should be about things that traditional television is not very good at”. Asked about Joost, he said: “I think they’re going to be an interesting niche player”.

Ashley also confirmed that the BBC, as a founding partner of the Freeview, was exploring the possibility of standards-based hybrid set-top boxes, “so we don’t just hand the future of terrestrial to the closed networks like BT Vision”.

Nevertheless, Mary Turner, the chief executive of Tiscali, which last week launched Tiscali TV following the acquisition of the HomeChoice platform, was more optimistic. She said there was “huge potential for an alternative platform,” and pointed out that with the benefit of MPEG-4 advanced video compression, it could provide better quality over a telephone line than current terrestrial transmissions.

It was also apparent that for many operators, the ability to deliver high-definition services was also rapidly becoming a key requirement. With set-top boxes now available which can support high-definition, and rising broadband access speeds, high-definition services over phone lines are a more practical proposition. The issue for operators now is how many simultaneous streams they may need to support to each home.

Over 4,000 visitors attended the free exhibition. There were 120 exhibitors, representing the range of the emergent IPTV industry, from new players to major multinationals such as Microsoft and Siemens. The stands were relatively low key compared to some shows. It was strange to see global companies like Cisco, which recently acquired Scientific Atlanta, on a shell stand like a small start-up.

There was little in the way of genuinely new concepts and little to inspire delegates to see IPTV as a breakthrough technology.

NDS and Nortel announced a joint marketing agreement that will see MediaHighway middleware integrated with Nortel’s voice and multimedia products to provide a range of integrated communications features.

In general, the user interfaces remain rather basic, with the exception of the media centre style interface of the Microsoft platform. Unfortunately they were unable to provide a demonstration of the BT Vision service. A demonstration of the Tiscali TV service was available on another stand.

Industria were prominently presenting their Zignal platform, with a slick user interface based on web technologies, which appeared to be attracting considerable interest.

The winners of the first IPTV World Series Awards were announced by the independent panel of judges, including informitv.

Quative, part of the Kudelski Group, received recognition for best IPTV platform. The second release of their service oriented architecture platform was launched at the event and is currently being deployed by Numericable in France.

Ruckus Wireless was awarded for the best delivery solution with their MediaFlex WiFi system.

Tandberg Television received the best headend and video processing technology award for their iPlex headend with support for MPEG-4 AVC high-definition encoding.

Advanced Digital Broadcast was awarded the best customer premise equipment for their ADB-3800TW hybrid set-top box, combining broadcast and broadband services, with support for high definition and MHP interactive applications.

Verimatrix, with its VCAS for IPTV software-based security system, was recognised as the best content protection or rights management solution.

World Series
The IPTV World Series of conferences continues with an event in Prague in May. Planning is already underway for next year’s event in London, which will also incorporate conferences on mobile television and interactive advertising.