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HONG KONG — It is not uncommon in wealthy Asian countries such as Japan and Hong Kong to see perfectly functional TV sets left out in the street for the garbage collectors to pick up — their faddy, tech-savvy owners having dumped them for this year’s model.

The same could happen with conventional TV delivery, if IPTV is allowed to fulfill its potential.

As a technology, Internet Protocol Television has existed for several years but is only really taking off now. The reason it has weathered a number of shaky starts is because the arguments in favor of delivering TV signals to television sets via the Internet are so strong.

IPTV is more efficient than cable in its use of bandwidth. That means it can be carried over smaller connections than cable and have more options along with video-on-demand. And IPTV beats satellite on interactivity grounds. It has allowed telecom giants to enter the media space, something many have sought for years.

AT&T boss Randall Stephenson has said: “IPTV is a transformative type of architecture and infrastructure that will change what this company looks like five years from now.” He only needs to look at Hong Kong to see how.

The world’s top exponent is Hong Kong’s PCCW group, with its Now Broadband TV service. Boasting some 770,000 subscribers at the end of July, Now is on course to overtake cable company I-Cable and become the leading pay-TV platform in the territory.

With a large, installed base of landlines and a growing number of homes lining up for its broadband Internet service, PCCW (formerly Cable & Wireless) applied a phone company approach to issues such as ubiquity, reliability and picture quality.

PCCW started to win attention from studios and channel owners when it demonstrated that its system was secure and less inclined to piracy than its rivals — despite coming over the unregulated public Internet. Unlike cable or satellite, which multicast all the available channels and use sophisticated set-top boxes as gatekeepers, PCCW was able to show it was safer even with its rudimentary STBs (based on video disc technology), by drawing down one encrypted channel at a time.

Having initially offered generous incentives to attract subscribers, PCCW has gotten customers to sign up for its a la carte program menu and the bundle that makes it an easy add-on to PCCW’s Netvigator Broadband and email services.

More than half the countries in Southeast Asia have some sort of IPTV service in operation. Total subscriptions are to climb from 1.47 million at the end of 2006 to 27 million by 2013, according to technology research house Frost & Sullivan.

Most recent entrant is mioTV, started in August by Singapore Telecom. Service is a direct competitor to cable TV incumbent StarHub and comes with such gadgetry as remote access by mobile phone and a 30-day electronic program guide.

But like Now, mioTV appears to have learned that when it comes to TV services, unlike personal hardware, consumers are relatively agnostic. What counts is the content. As an example, both Singtel and PCCW paid top prices to outbid ESPN Star Sports for English Premier League soccer in their respective territories.

What gives IPTV a chance of success in Hong Kong, Singapore and the larger Japan market, where ABI Research expects there will be at least 4.2 million IPTV subscribers by 2012, is that all three territories are wealthy and densely populated, and regulators have not prevented development. This may not be typical elsewhere in Asia: South Korea, China and India present significantly greater regulatory hurdles.

China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued four IPTV licenses in 2006, and the country’s audio and video coding standard (AVS) was confirmed the same year. However, even with powerful Shanghai Media Group in the vanguard, commercial rollout of IPTV platforms has been modest. Biggest issue appears to be unwillingness of state to unleash a new competitor to the cable networks it has invested in.

Though South Korea is by some measures the most wired country in the world and could roll out IPTV quickly, incumbent cablers have put up strong resistance, and government departments are at loggerheads as to who should regulate.

India’s case is different again. New companies joining the fragmented cable market could provide the infrastructure for IPTV platforms, but the conventional broadcast market is growing faster. Researcher e2e forecasts that India will see 100 channels launch this year, bringing the total to approximately 700 by the end of 2009.

In that context, a place for IPTV looks small.

“IPTV technology works, but it will need the right content for product differentiation,” says Bharti Airtel exec Puneet Garg. “IPTV looks (like) a good opportunity for niches.”