Content Portability: A Disruption for Triple Play Providers

There is no denying that more and more users are adopting high-speed access as the distribution method of choice for data services. Further, some of these users have even adopted voice and video IP services. Combined the bandwidth required by these applications can easily exceed the 1-2 Mbps connection available to most users today. To address this providers are working to evolve their networks to enable 20 Mbps and more to the end user. This includes the long term goals of wireless providers as well. However, this may not be as easy as simply adding bigger pipes.
With voice revenues declining, providers are looking for new ways to breathe life into their service offerings. This includes the introduction of content in various forms including video on demand, multicast video, video conferencing, gaming, etc. However, content distribution adds considerable complexity and concerns: specifically content management and security. In addition QoS has been at the forefront of most infrastructure discussions as providers set their sights on application differentiation. The intention of course is to ensure provider resources are used as efficiently as possible while maintaining the QoS expectations of each service. Further this presents a future revenue opportunity for providers as they move more into the role of transport providers.
Combined these are complex requirements and it is becoming apparent that engineering and designing these next generation access infrastructures is not easy. While the direction may be well charted, a new disruptive technology is emerging that may help simplify provider’s woes IF it is recognized before it is too late.
Push versus Pull Models
There is a story that has been circulating for years about a man who was such a good salesman he sold the London Bridge…twice. While some would agree that the right salesman can sell anything to anyone, this is the exception and not the rule. Rather, end user requirements emerge for several reasons that might include cost, simplicity, control, customer service, trendiness, etc. These requirements drive technology in all areas of the users’ life. Evolution of technology to meet end user requirements is a pull model and has proven to be successful time and time again. The push model is much more difficult to sell as it can only be successful if it recognizes a need in the user before the user recognizes it himself. If it does not address one of the previously stated requirements but does add value as a new technology it may be considered a disruptive technology. Disruptive technologies are typically responsible for changing end user habits but tend to go unnoticed until it is too late.
Current triple play architectures are driven by the opportunity of providers to improve service revenues however they are not responding to any immediate need by users. As such current triple play services rollout follows a push model.
Convergence…but this is Ridiculous!
When large telcos talk of convergence they typically are referring to the end user convergence of services over a single common infrastructure. This might include convergence of the physically connected networks such that voice, video and data services are all carried over the same wire or it might refer to even further convergence of control technologies such as SIP and/or AAA services like Radius, Diameter, etc. However, this discussion seems to overlook one key item…the end user.
Most end users could care less about convergence of services from a physical infrastructure, management or control perspective. Rather, as long as the service makes it to the home, it doesn’t matter whether it is via Satellite, WiMax, RJ11, RJ45, Coax, etc. Convergence to the end user implies converged billing, support and hopefully a reduction in service charges.
Evolving Voice
We can already see from adoption of technologies that free VoIP services and even paid services are gaining momentum. This seems to be limited only by the technical savviness of users and as familiarity with these applications grows we can expect even more users to move away from traditional services. Keep in mind that users have no knowledge of how different services are handled over a data infrastructure. As such they purchase a high speed data service and expect to get reasonable quality voice in addition to their data.
The freedom that voice over IP introduces brings much needed simplification to the end user. Combine this with worldwide internet access now available via WiFi and wired data services and now the end user can make international calls from virtually anywhere to anyone without complicated dial patterns or expensive charges.
Now extend this service to the current cellular provider model. Today these providers are known as voice providers as the service they offer is predominantly voice however, as data services grow, consumers will quickly recognize the same benefits of VoIP over these networks. The same simplification of services applies including number portability, cheaper international calling, etc. Further, converging this with an IM or Internet presence application the same ID can be used for both wireless and wireline VoIP. Now even without the infrastructure change, the end user sees a converged service. And trying to get these users to switch back will be next to impossible thus relegating most providers to bandwidth providers only.
To fully understand how this type of convergence impacts an end user imagine the following example. Fast forward 3 years when typical DSL services offer 20 Mbps. New WiMax services offer similar speeds in major metro areas. Further, wireless hotspots exist in virtually any center including hotels, supermarkets, shopping centers, big box stores, schools, etc. Perhaps a preferred provider owns both a wireline and wireless infrastructure and offers a $20/month service for a 10 Mbps channel when available via the wireless infrastructure and a 20 Mbps channel when available via the wired infrastructure. The end user uses IM and presence such that he can be reached anytime, anywhere regardless of whether he is working on his laptop in the hotel, his desktop at home, or his cell phone while in the car. This service allows him to use a recognizable username that is easy for friends and colleagues to remember. Further calling parties never need to be forwarded through number chains.
Now imagine this user needs to attend a business conference half way around the world. As long as the hotel and conference offer data services his presence application will make it appear to interacting parties that he has not left the country. This user has just experienced voice service portability.
A Word about QoS
Quality of Service is something most users take for granted however it has been one of the biggest driving factors in network infrastructure design for years. While vendors continue to sell the value proposition of service guarantees to providers, end users are becoming more and more familiar with data applications and the expectations associated with them. No doubt a 5-9s service is desirable but if a 3-9s service is available for half the cost, residential users will accept it with open arms.
Companies like Skype and Vonage have already proved that the convenience of a VoIP service combined with presence at a good price will draw users away even at the expense of quality. Once more users adopt the service they will inevitably push for QoS and it will come however the war today is over attracting users.
Providers however need to look at alternative means to drive revenue and the most obvious way to do this is to offer QoS services to application service providers. While ultimately this improves the end-user experience, the user’s relationship exists between himself and the ASP and not the access provider. The bandwidth sold to the end-user will appear as one large pipe.
Designing Complex Systems
Often providers are so busy trying to design complex, convoluted systems to address the simplest of problems. Three top areas of concern for providers exist as follows:
Content Management and Security
Clearly if the access provider plays a role in content delivery they are also liable for management and security of that content. It is quite likely that digital video recorders and set-top boxes will be thought of as an extension to the provider network. As such it is the responsibility of the provider to ensure content stored on these devices is not compromised. This has been a major factor in the reluctance to roll out wide-scale video services.
Customer Premise Equipment
Ideally the end-user should have complete flexibility over the devices selected for use within the home. This however compromises the quality of experience as the provider can no longer guarantee service delivery from ASP to the end-user. Rather, the provider will continue to deliver a pre-defined appliance as part of the service which will operate as a closed system. This is the only way QoS can be maintained through the infrastructure to ensure appropriate service delivery however this is at the expense of cost and flexibility to the end user.
Quality of Service
Current design principles for broadband networks assume some differentiation of applications. Voice for example has a different set of QoS requirements than video or data. These applications can be identified and handled differently however this adds considerable complexity to network planning. Further, there is no standardized way to do this nor are all vendor product roadmaps aligned to deliver a complete end-to-end system with comprehensive QoS. Finally, end-user habits are changing such that the benefits to such a flexible QoS system are marginalized.
The User Model
Users on the other hand drive towards simplicity. In the music industry the big assumption is that if users can download MP3s they will do so illegally to save a buck. This is quite contrary to the normal user who in fact uses this system for the simplicity of content distribution. This is proven by the huge acceptance of services like iTunes. If content is readily available when and where the user wants, they will pay.
One example that can be cited is FM radio services. Many providers spent several years developing expensive next generation systems to evolve radio. As such XFM and Satellite radio became available. These are subscription services that offer predictable content delivered over a larger geographical area.
In parallel large scale music content portability was enabled with the introduction of MP3 players. Now users have become accustomed to taking their content with them. This is a model that will quickly follow suit in the video space as well. Today providers are spending money and resources on complex VoD and multicast video distribution systems leveraging high speed data networks with the expectation that the content will reside in the network. Meanwhile users are getting used to the feel of portable content. One issue is that users do not like to pay for something they can’t own. MP3s with appropriate Digital Rights Management allow the end-user to effectively own the content while at the same time protect the original content provider.
The Solution
New portable content devices make this real as they allow content portability of 100s of hours of video and 1000s of hours of audio. Not only is the content viewable on the device screen, it can be connected to a television or accessed via a computer for display on a computer monitor. Now imagine waking up in the morning to the alarm you set on your portable content device. You walk over and select the latest news program that your computer automatically downloaded and placed on your PCD as part of a video podcast subscription service. Every morning the latest 2 hour broadcast is downloaded during off-peak hours. You now walk into the living room and drop the PCD into the docking station next to the TV and the news feed jumps to life on the large screen with no interruption in service. When it’s time to go to work you grab the PCD from the dock and drive off, meanwhile listening to MP3s in the car. Once at work you re-dock it next to your computer and the video now jumps up as a window on your desktop.
Sound like a dream? Well it‘s not. This is available now and best of all it requires no complicated network infrastructures. Rather a simple subscription to that particular video podcast is all that is needed.
Video content portability will quickly become a reality and will follow the path set by music distribution. The enabler for this adoption is simplicity. iTunes offers a simple access agnostic universal content management interface for browsing and purchasing. Granted the market for real-time services will still exist and as these end devices evolve to include direct WiMax connections with RSS content feeds they will quickly be incorporated into the service.
Finally…some Real Convergence
Rather than designing complex systems to allow content mobility across multiple networks in hopes of providing access ubiquity, the user will adopt a model that leverages content portability. Why? Because of the simplicity of content distribution. After subscribing to preferred podcasts and video podcasts the user requires only a data connection anywhere in the world. Downloads can occur during off-peak hours and are autonomous.
Combine this with wide scale acceptance of VoIP services for residential users and it becomes quite clear that the end user requires only a large data connection. QoS from a video perspective becomes irrelevant as content is downloaded in non-real-time. Also, as the reliability of data services improves, subsequent VoIP quality improves to a satisfactory level for the residential user.
In addition to simplifying infrastructure requirements of providers, this model further allows complete flexibility in end user device selection: a goal set by many providers but quickly recognized as very difficult to achieve.
Further, content management in the home becomes the sole responsibility of the end user. The provider network, now operating purely as a transit infrastructure, may influence the content however there is no responsibility placed on the provider for security or management of this content. Rather this relationship exists solely between the end user and the content provider.
The Future
2 years from now we can expect to see the convergence between the portable content device and the mobile phone with large adoption in 5 years. Now all podcasts can be downloaded directly onto the PCD without the need of a computer. Further, voice services will be predominantly IP and will leverage presence to provide true access ubiquity. RSS services will enable real-time content distribution.
Subscribers will no longer purchase services such as voice and video from access providers but instead will purchase data services only. Subscription services will be used for video with VoIP enabling any provider virtually anywhere in the world to compete.
Content will be accessible anywhere in the world opening up whole new markets for video providers.
Further, companies seem to be in support of this model and have now recognized Apple’s DRM technology as being adequate for large scale content distribution.
TiVo has even moved ahead of the pack and announced that they will support the ability to dump recorded content directly from the set-top box to the PCD. This significantly simplifies the model and eliminates the requirements of having a PC and video conversion software.
This does not change the original requirements for higher bandwidths. Rather it further emphasizes that data is growing and hence the end game is still there…providers need to improve infrastructures to enable large data bandwidth to end users. The difference is that getting there now becomes much easier. By leveraging adoption habits of the end user, the provider can simply work towards large and reliable data channels without the cost and complexity of full triple play infrastructures.
Further, content management becomes the responsibility of the end-user. Combine this with support for content distribution services and portable content devices and the model changes from push to pull. Providers willing to embrace this disruption will be positioned to truly deliver next generation user driven services.

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