IPTV: Both Sides Now

It’s interesting to spend time with the folks creating the guts of the brave new world of digital entertainment. It brought me face-to-face with some of my assumptions about the meaning of “IPTV” and the fact that there are other sets of assumptions at work in this space.

Those of us who began our new media journey in the IP world have embraced the many-to-many democratization of the Internet. We chose what we want and “pull” it.

But the folks who come from the “old media” world of broadcasting have a definitely old-media model of reality. That model is all about old media “content providers” — aka broadcast and cable networks — using digital technology to deliver content. They chose what they want us to get and “push” it.

It’s such a given in this world that the content providers are the center of the universe that an entire session I attended as part of Motorola’s IPTV 101 seminar given in conjunction with the Connections show was sidetracked by discussion of this distinction.

It came up because a few members of the audience were confused. They thought that “IPTV” meant that you could watch anything you want — last week’s episode of “Lost” or MySpace videos.

That was not the presenters’ model.

“Our view of IPTV is a managed service — IP delivered content over a managed network,” is how one Motorola speaker put it.

So I asked Marty Stein, Senior Marketing Director at Motorola, why such a provider-centric view, pointing out that in the voice realm it wasn’t the phone company delivering leading-edge technology. Video is a much more technically demanding medium, Stein counters.

“The bandwidth requirements of video and the ’unforgiving’ requirements of video delivery with precise timing makes it much more difficult to have an acceptable viewing experience on the public Internet,” Stein explains.

Fair enough.

However, once a democratizing platform like the Internet is in place, you can’t lasso the horse back in the barn. There are a lot of talented engineers out there working on just this problem. One example is Plainview, NY-based NeuLion, which builds private broadcasting networks for content providers.

In the NeuLion model, the public Internet is where content distributors connect with their audience. Content is delivered via the NeuLion platform, a VPN. The company delivers TV quality video to any device you want — including TV sets. NeuLion also provides the entire support infrastructure, like billing and set top boxes.

Anybody with content can be a TV network. And customers are likely to respond favorably to this model. Right now NeuLion’s customers are niche networks with specialized or local following. In other words, the audiences that new media pundits tell us are the future.

The NeuLions of the world are likely to be more in touch with consumers than the traditional players. In a recent Infonetics survey of customer satisfaction, Shoretel and Cisco — definitely “new media” businesses — beat traditional telecom providers.

Coming out of the IP world, Cisco and Shoretel bring a “have it your way” model. Unlike traditional players who expect things to work the way…they’ve always worked: we tell you what you can have and you pay extra for every feature.

It’s pretty clear that we’re not going to go back to the Ma Bell model for our phone service. Likewise, it’s unlikely that IPTV’s early adopters — let’s face it, that’s us — are going to lie down and let NBC or Comcast decide how and what we’re going to watch.

I’m looking forward to the next disruption. I have a feeling it’s not far off.