In a region with satellite TV penetration of more than 90 percent it is difficult to imagine how an alternative delivery platform could muscle in and establish itself as a major competitor. So far IPTV rollouts have been chipping away at the DTH dominance one residential development at a time. Now though, these services are gaining momentum with telcos in the region slowly expanding the coverage and quality of their fledgling IPTV networks.
It seems that the Middle East could now be on the verge of its own IPTV revolution.
Lebanon leads the way
One roll-out that has offered a glimpse of the possibilities that IPTV can offer on a fiber network is the service provided as part of the redevelopment of the Beirut Central District.
The project by Orange Business Services and Lebanese development company Solidere has applied the full suite of qualities that could give IPTV the edge over other broadcasting delivery methods in the near future.
“Beirut is a 21st century city so it deserves 21st century telecoms services,” says Lionel Reina, vice president of Orange Business Services for the Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa region. “By bringing our expertise of developing broadband and IPTV services in Europe to Lebanon, we have created one of the most advanced IPTV services anywhere in the Middle East,” he claims.
“This is just one step in our goal to enable Smart Cities throughout the region, where broadband is the fundamental building block for improved living and working,” he adds, highlighting the close relationship between broadband and IPTV services for customers and operators.
Subscribers to the IPTV service receive a Thomson integrated home gateway and set-top box featuring a personal video recorder (PVR) giving them access to 120 channels. The addition of a PVR is crucial to enabling the full potential of a two-way IPTV network allowing operators to offer time shifting as well as VOD services. Additional revenue streams can also be gained from offering targeted advertising amd from pay-per-view content that can be stored on the PVR.
Investing in the consumer hardware that enables these functions ensures that the operator can extract full value from the network. Despite this, it remains an area that many providers choose to cut corners on.
Each subscriber on the Solidere network reportedly has a 100 Mbps access line, which Orange Business Solutions claims is sufficient bandwidth for more than three simultaneous TV channels as well as high-speed Internet access.
The IPTV network is supported by the existing Solidere-operated private broadband network that was designed and deployed by Orange in 2006. This multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network also supports a range of multimedia services alongside videoconferencing, closed circuit television and gaming services.
Solidere’s IPTV service – the first of its kind in Lebanon – is being implemented by Orange under its Solutions for Operators service. Solutions for Operators specifically addresses the needs of existing or new telecoms operators like Solidere, whose strategy is to offer next generation telecommunications services as a core component of their real estate developments to assure previously unobtainable revenue streams.
Although the Beirut deployment is far from the scale of the national deployments elsewhere in the region it is one of the more ambitious.
UAE set for service upgrades
UAE telco du has had much of the necessary infrastructure in place for IPTV since 2006 with many of Dubai’s more recent residential projects serviced exclusively by the operator.
Originally the company offered TV services over this network that are analogous to a regular cable TV system with linear programming delivered to the set top box, all be it through IP. Strictly speaking this is not IPTV in its purest form, lacking as it does any of the benefits that a two-way network can offer viewers and operators alike.
All the signs now suggest that an upgrade to this service is imminent.
Buried in an announcement by du that it had completed a US $27 million network upgrade enabling increased internet bandwidth speeds, was confirmation that the company would indeed be raising its TV offering to the next level.
In 2007 du selected Microsoft Mediaroom, Alcatel-Lucent and software-based conditional access provider Latens as the main technology providers for the IPTV network.
The Mediaroom platform will enable DVR, VOD, parental control options and SMS triggered recording. It will also offer the ability to view your TV services on any set in the house. Current subscribers to du’s TV services may also be pleased to hear that Mediaroom will offer lag-free channel changes and a slicker, more responsive EPG.
The UAE’s state-owned telco Etisalat founded its E-Vision service in 2000. The development of Etisalat’s countrywide fibre network could accelerate E-Vision to the front of the pack for TV services in the UAE.
Later this year, more than 700,000 customers in Abu Dhabi will migrate to the fibre network creating the largest potential market for advanced broadcast services in the entire region. Etisalat has set itself the target of rolling out the network nationwide by 2011.
Revelations by du CEO Osman Sultan that the UAE’s two telcos were in negotiations over infrastructure sharing could accelerate national scale access to IPTV services and of course, high-speed broadband services.
The broadband problem
As with all content services in the Middle East, the public will have to be educated as to why IPTV is better than FTA, the incumbent pay TV operators and even illegal satellite services from outside the region such as India’s Dish TV.
Unfortunately, the provision of IPTV services is usually offered on the back of a network that also offers high-speed broadband access. This could result in a shift in the source of illegally accessed content from cracked pay TV decoder boxes and counterfeit DVDs to P2P filesharing. Persuading consumers that VOD and all the other trimmings of IPTV represent better value than illegal downloads will be a major challenge. The presence of high speed internet connections also encourages the emergence of internet based content delivery systems. Although these offer an additional revenue source for broadcasters, they place additional strain on operator’s networks without sharing any of the revenue.
With networks in place and services assembled operators will have to decide which is more profitable, the data traffic from file sharers or IPTV subscription charges.
Arab advisors report
IPTV is still in its formative stages in the MENA region, according to a recent report by the Arab Advisors Group.
Although the number of video services over IP networks has grown from four in August, 2007, to a total of seven operators in six countries by May, 2009. In addition to these the report claims that another seven nations – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – could soon be receiving IPTV. This prediction would appear to be backed up by the recent statement from Mobily that intended to make IPTV an immediate priority.
Presently, there are very few advanced applications available on the current IPTV services although there are plans among several telcos to begin rolling these out in the near future.
“The IP-based platform offers significant advantages such as video on demand (VOD), the advantage of triple play and a more interactive and personalised service,” says Faten Bader, Arab Advisors senior research analyst.