Speed thrills, but IPTV growth stymied by lack of broadband availability

Jim Barthold, FierceIPTVI recently experienced 4G LTE for the first time … not because I got a new cell phone but because I wandered into an area that offered it.

I was sitting at Famous Dave's Barbecue outside Atlantic City when I decided to check one of my multiple weather applications to learn whether more thunderstorms were headed my way. Instead of waiting for the app to load and the radar to eventually show up, everything happened at eye-popping speed.

Wow, I thought--and may actually have said aloud--so that's what they're talking about and advertising. Who'dve thunk it? You see, despite the signature line on emails sent from my smartphone, I'd had more experience with 1x and at best 3G when using my phone's data capabilities in and around my home area. To actually experience the speed I'd been promised was a thrill--kind of like the sort of thrill I'd probably get if I had the option to purchase an IPTV or competitive pay TV service from another wireline provider.

I pondered that experience this week when I read reports from Point Topic that increased fiber deployments worldwide are driving more subscribers to IPTV. At the same time, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) said it had conducted a successful trial to deliver 1 Gbps-plus broadband over copper.

In both instances--and others crossing my desk daily--both service providers and vendors pay lip service to the notion that speed thrills, and claim they're doing everything in their power to deliver more broadband. The problem is that, in many places in this country, you have a better chance of getting speed from a dealer on a street corner than you are from your local wireline or wireless provider.

That, unfortunately, is why IPTV is failing to make the inroads it should in a U.S. market that cable clearly dominates, despite multiple shortcomings.

Research firm Point Topic sees that changing, at least internationally, as fiber becomes more accessible. It's not necessarily the vaunted and expensive fiber-to-the-home (FTTH); it's fiber-to-the-neighborhood, also known as hybrid fiber or fiber to the "x" (FTTx) that is delivering the broadband speeds that in turn fuel the growth of IPTV.

Of course fiber is expensive and time-consuming. Alcatel-Lucent, in an Austrian experiment, offered hope for those providers that won't or can't replace their existing copper infrastructure with fiber. Using Bell Labs' G.fast technology, some new and old copper, some vectoring, a little chewing gum and baling wire, the vendor coaxed 1.1 Gbps over 70 meters and 800 Mbps over 100 meters.

No matter how you shake it, that's good stuff. Yeah, the timeline is years away and yeah, you still need some reasonably good copper to pull it off, but it's progress toward actually building a technology that will compete with cable and offer a second way to get decent wireline speed.

Speed, in every instance of modern telecommunications, thrills. It delivers the instant gratification of seeing an application pop up on a mobile device or the power of a wireline connection to deliver a movie to a computer or TV or even a tablet running on a shaky Wi-Fi connection.

Right now, when you think about it clearly, the best way to get that speed is from a cable operator who wisely or serendipitously had the sense to build a hybrid fiber/coax network and implement DOCSIS. For telcos to become viable competitors in the wireline space, there needs to be more fiber, or a fast-tracking of technologies that wring more from copper. Otherwise, IPTV will be like that 4G LTE signal: something exciting, but rare.--Jim