JDSU's Kevin O'Donnell discusses how operators need to reach into the home to drive down the cost of IPTV and improve quality of service

It seems that IPTV is the word on everyone's lips at the moment. It was one of the main focuses at this year's TM Forum Management World, and a rash of recent news stories and analyst reports have highlighted the interest the technology is generating.

In its latest European pay-TV forecasts, Analysys Mason predicted that the number of IPTV subscriptions on the continent will increase by 92%, from 15.4 million in 2009 to 29.6 million in 2015, boosted by more-widespread deployment of next-generation access. According to the analyst company, IPTV is the fastest-growing TV platform in Europe. It seems that we are reaching critical days for the deployment of IPTV across Europe.

The technology is now proven and customer adoption is starting to gather mass, the battle for subscribers is about to begin in earnest. Service providers will need to be able to scale effectively and deliver exceptional levels of quality of service if they are to win market share of this profitable new revenue stream. The ability to achieve this while driving operational costs down will be vital to success. For operators this will come down to a single requirement - winning the hearts and minds of consumers by delivering quality of service right into the home.

Managing quality within the home environment is not a simple matter, however. IPTV is part of a wider picture - that of the multi-service home. Traditionally service providers needed only to worry about one simple thing: ensuring the quality of voice services over a copper line. Modern homes, however, are much more demanding of their telecoms networks.

They require not only high-quality voice services but also Internet, IPTV, HD games, VoIP, home environment monitoring and many other services delivered to the home and networked within the home. Service providers have to manage simultaneous and multiple services delivered to multiple end-points over a mix of networking media - from copper to fibre. Not only is this technically difficult to do, but it also drives up opex for service providers.
Service providers, therefore, face a simple challenge: maximise the potential of IPTV by rapidly growing subscribers without compromising on quality and while simultaneously reducing opex.

One of the main ways service providers will be able to realise this is through minimising the costs involved in detecting and resolving faults on the network. As soon as IPTV subscriber numbers grow to a certain point, the costs involved in dispatching engineers to diagnose and fix faults on the network becomes unsustainable.

Not only are more engineers required as there are more subscribers reporting faults within the home, but without being able to diagnose the cause of the fault before dispatch, engineers are essentially shooting in the dark and it may require several return trips to adequately identify the fault and get the equipment needed to fix it. This approach is a far too costly and can also lead to customer churn due to dissatisfaction with the speed of fault resolution.

Also, when it comes to maximising the opportunities provided by IPTV, service providers will need to establish a means of effectively up-selling the service to existing subscribers. Effective targeting of customers will be key, as not all of them will have a network connection appropriate for IPTV (the connection may be too slow, or they may be too far away from the exchange to enjoy a high-quality service). By delivering IPTV to subscribers who can only enjoy a comparatively poor user experience, the service provider risks tainting the entire brand.

These are challenges that can only be addressed by giving service providers a complete view of network and service quality within each subscribers home.

When it comes to fault diagnosis and resolution, service providers need a test strategy that can get as close to the customer as possible. This is the nirvana of trouble shooting: service assurance capabilities extended into the home to provide full QoS and QoE reporting of customers suffering degraded service.

As soon as a customer phones a call centre to report a fault, service providers can immediately view network performance right up to the customer's set-top box, allowing them to pinpoint the fault within the residence. This provides them with the information they need to recognise the nature of the fault before an engineer is dispatched.

In some cases, the fault may be able to be repaired remotely, saving the need to send out an engineer at all. When an engineer does need to be dispatched, they will be able to take the correct tools for the job and fix the fault in one visit.

This type of home performance management has not been possible in the past, where service providers could only expect to be able to provide service assurance for the core network. It delivers them the network and service intelligence they need to run an efficient troubleshooting strategy, reducing opex and improving customer service.

This approach can also do much to help service providers more effectively grow IPTV subscription rates among existing broadband subscribers. By reaching into the homes of subscribers, service providers can have a more complete picture of their installed base. They can view the bandwidth allocation to all customers and gain an understanding of which subscribers have sufficient capacity for sustaining high-quality TV sessions. This allows them to effectively up-sell without the possibility of providing an unsatisfactory service to their end users and risking customer churn.

So how close are we to this troubleshooting panacea? The answer is now here. At May's TM Forum Management World a demo run under the forum's Catalyst Project demonstrated that by working closely with all players in the IPTV service delivery chain QoS can be guaranteed right up to the set top box. The project demonstrated clearly that service providers are able to reduce IPTV installation and maintenance costs while simultaneously identifying customers to up-sell to. For this to happen, however, there needs to be close consultation between standards organisations such as the Broadband Forum, OSS vendors, service assurance vendors, CPE management providers and the service providers themselves.

TV viewers have strong expectations of the quality of the service they receive and successful players in this market will be able to deliver this. The difficult part will lie in being able to deliver quality on a cost-effective and scalable basis. It is here that home performance management will be a boon to operators and will play a large part in helping IPTV break into the mainstream.

Kevin O'Donnell is marketing manager at JDSU

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