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[Cover Story] Broadband to Deliver Programs to TV

The slump in digital satellite broadcasting is accelerating the distribution of Internet broadband content to the TV set.

At last, we are on the verge of being able to watch broadband Internet content on the television (TV) set. The switch to broadband has accelerated significantly in 2001, with broadband service prices dropping and the number of subscribers steadily rising. Industry is actively looking at the commercial video distribution business. Like conventional broadcasting, broadband will offer the full spectrum of programs, including movies, dramas, animation, commercials, comedies, theater and concerts. A host of commercial ideas including both free and fee-based services are being launched in 2001.

The encoded data rate ranges from about 500 kbits/s to 2 Mbits/s to match the data rate of the access lines used. As a result, image quality is about on a par with that offered by a standard video cassette recorder (VCR) or TV broadcasting.

At present, most available image content is quite short, such as movie trailers, because it is designed to be played on a personal computer (PC). This situation is changing, however, now that some communications satellite (CS) digital programs are being offered via broadband. The top film company in the US is expected to launch video-on-demand (VoD) commercial service in the US in 2002.

New Vitality

Japanese broadcasters are beginning to enter the broadband business, and firms have already been established by Tokyo FM Broadcasting Co, Ltd, Television Tokyo Channel 12, Ltd and Nippon Television Network Corp. Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc (TBS), Fuji Television Network, Inc and Asahi National Broadcasting Co, Ltd have announced that they are jointly investigating a business launch (Fig 1). SKYPerfect Communications Inc, which operates the SKYPerfecTV, an established CS digital broadcast service, has also begun broadband broadcasting trials.

Behind the collapse of the traditional barriers between broadcasting and communications, due to the entry of broadcasters and TV manufacturers into the broadband world, is the slump in digital broadcasting (Fig 2). Broadcast satellite (BS) digital broadcasting began in December 2000, and had the goal of reaching 10 million subscriber households in three years. However, its performance has been poor and the outlook is grim. In fact, there is little question whether broadband will achieve this 10 million subscriber target first. Broadband TV will outrun even the established SKYPerfecTV subscriber levels in 2002.

The broadcasting industry seems likely to remain wary of broadband, but at the same time recognizes it as an opportunity for new business. The industry hopes to apply the brand-name strength built up in broadcasting to succeed in broadband as well.

SKYPerfect Communications thinks it is perhaps the broadcaster closest to the crisis. Yoshihiko Tanaka, general manager, Broadband Contents Department, SKYPerfect Communications, explained, “Streaming content distributed via broadband is mostly niche stuff. Many of the programs we offer are niche genres with limited target audiences. As a result, there is the potential for intense competition with broadband Internet.”

SKYPerfecTV owns the rights to very little of the content it distributes, as most of the programs are provided from external sources. If broadband use becomes widespread, there is a good chance that the content producers will just offer it in this media, leaving SKYPerfectTV with, in the worst scenario, nothing to broadcast.

As a result, the firm decided to jump into broadband-based content distribution itself, beginning with participation in an Internet connection firm. It is also investigating the construction of a billing system capable of handling both digital broadcasting and broadband distribution, jointly with Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT) East Corp of Japan.

Broadcaster Strategies

Terrestrial broadcasters are also moving to reconstruct their media strategies, including broadband.

Fuji Television has set up a special department to decide what type of content should be distributed through which media. According to Kazunobu Iijima, senior executive director, Corporate Planning Department at the firm, it was established because, “We are proud of producing wonderful content combining digital broadcasting and interactive functions, but we have to determine the most suitable content for BS digital broadcasting, in accordance with the age group that would purchase its expensive receiver.”

A number of broadcasters are planning to shift to a fee base when broadband content broadcasting begins. “There are limits to the advertising market, and eventually we should not rely on this market only,” said Shinji Masuda, director, Strategic Planning & Business Development Department, Office of the President, Asahi National Broadcasting. “Establishing a fee-based broadband business is a critical part of our survival strategy.”

Pipeline Concepts

The “big pipe” in broadband service is flat-fee, full-time connection, which means that content can be pushed to the home anytime the line is free. Digital broadcasting is merely one type of pipeline which offers stable quality of service (QoS).

Appliance manufacturers are also being forced to review their e-Platform concept. Youichiro Maekawa, director, Corporate eNet Business Division, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co, Ltd, which is a key player in the body promoting the concept, commented, “We want our set-top boxes to support broadband as soon as possible, and evolve them into home servers. Our goal is to get into the platform business, with HDD-equipped set-top boxes handling both broadband and digital broadcasting.”

Matsushita Electric has launched the “Broadband Broadcasting Project”, which is developing programs designed to be viewed on television, such as English lessons and cooking classes. The firm plans to offer this content on both e-platforms and broadband. “With the exception of the description language used, there really isn’t much difference between broadcasting and broadband in terms of content design and production,” said Noriaki Wakabayashi, general manager, R&D;, Corporate eNet Business Division at Matsushita.

Carriers Prepare

The carriers responsible for the communications infrastructure are also steadily advancing preparations. This means upgrading the content delivery network (CDN) to assure image quality, and getting set to introduce new set-top boxes which will expand the range of receiving terminals from personal computers (PC) to TV receivers.

In preparation for CDN roll out, Internet service providers (ISP) are moving to improve service quality, such as by setting up distributed servers. Cable television stations are following suit. Many stations launching cable Internet services are moving to tie-up with carriers offering CDN.

Concerning set-top boxes, Usen Corp of Japan and other companies are also getting ready. “We really want to begin program distribution to TV sets using set-top boxes right now,” revealed Atsushi Fujimoto, director of Usen. “We haven’t actually launched the service yet because we haven’t found an equipment manufacturer for a partner. We need a stable delivery, low-priced equipment source.”

Firms like QB KK, Japan Telecom Co, Ltd and NTT Broadband Initiative Inc (NTT-BB) have announced that they will commercialize set-top boxes and home gateways for TV sets. Hideo Inou, general manager, Strategic Planning Department at NTT-BB, commented, “We are involved in content distribution via broadband, not broadcasting. Televisions providing passive viewing are crucial when used as monitors, and essential in achieving content distribution. There are limits to expand the market with only PCs.”

Broadband TV Appears

Sony Corp of Japan marketed the first broadband-capable TV receiver in September 2001, the BitPlay (Fig 3). It was developed by Sony’s Home Audio Company. Hiro Saoyama, senior manager, Development Department at the Home Audio Company explained, “We first provided functions to allow subscribers to use the broadband to enjoy the audio content of the many programs available. Next, of course, is video.”

The technologies being used to achieve commercial broadband video distribution were originally developed for the PC using encoding and networking technologies, for example, without consideration to broadcasting or TV. As a result, a variety of modifications are still needed for their application in TV receivers and set-top boxes (Fig 4).

The first consideration in this process is cost reduction. If technologies originally developed for audio-visual (AV) PCs are to be redesigned and shipped for TV application, the cost will have to be on a par with PC devices. The problem is that, “People consider 100,000yen (US$825) cheap for a PC, and many are willing to spend 300,000yen. When it comes to TV sets, though, most people consider 50,000yen expensive,” says Akiyoshi Imaizumi, senior manager, Business Development at RealNetworks, Inc. Price requirements in this industry are very demanding.

Another consideration is linking terminals with networks. When image content distribution is considered, for example, there may well be more than a single framework for billing/settlement/authentication or copyright protection. New frameworks may appear at any time. With each change and addition, new processing may be required, and hardware performance requirements may change. There is a chance that it will become impossible to handle processing in a single terminal. If the processing can be handled by equipment located on the network side, a service supporting multiple frameworks can be used without requiring major changes to terminal specifications. This is why there is increased interest in developing a standardized terminal-network interface.

Streaming Majors Act

Microsoft Corp and RealNetworks, Inc, both of the US – the firms that developed the streaming technology accepted as the industry standard – have announced concrete plans to achieve lower cost for streaming data processing. Presuming the use of set-top boxes, they intend to use hard-wired logic integrated circuits (IC) and digital signal processors (DSP) to process streaming data. When a microprocessor in a PC is used for streaming processing, costs can be too high.

These firms are interested in TV for more reasons than just the spread of broadband, though: the companies developing the streaming technologies are now fully confident of image quality. At TV industry shows, Microsoft, RealNetworks and others offer demonstrations that show appealing broadcast-quality images (Fig 5). Microsoft, which has offered displays of high-definition TV (HDTV) technology, is aiming for the technology to be applied in conventional TV, rather than competing in image quality, according to Masayuki Motojima, technical evangelist, Digital Media Division of Microsoft Co, Ltd in Japan. In other words, the encoding scheme is not designed for only small-size, specialized displays.

“In comparison with MPEG-2, MPEG-4 has been positioned as a scheme offering high-efficiency coding and high image quality within a rate of 500 kbits/s. We further refined this MPEG-4 technology to have better image quality up to 6 Mbits/s,” said Motojima. The firm predicts it will be able to decode a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel HDTV image with a single Pentium processor by about 2004.

Frozen Decoder Specs

Microsoft Corp and RealNetworks take different stances when it comes to concrete policy for TV implementation, though. Microsoft, the developer of Windows Media Technology, has decided to freeze the specifications of the decoders built into user equipment. Microsoft’s Motojima explained, “If we limit technologies to a TV application, we have pretty much already reached a satisfactory level in regard to all the requirements for television. Now, just modifying the encoding system may improve image quality.”

The specifications may be fixed as early as the end of 2001, so that products will be ready in time for the 2002 Christmas season. The final decision will be made depending on whether or not equipment manufacturers commercialize set-top boxes designed for the specifications freeze.

Until now, encoding technology for streaming applications has gradually improved through a succession of system upgrades. While this approach did provide steady improvements in terms of image quality, it also meant that receiver software had to be upgraded each time. With data distribution to PCs, where software downloading is taken for granted, this represents no particular difficulty. Most set-top boxes, however, process images with a dedicated IC and hardwired logic, which means they can’t be used across version upgrades.

The Windows Media Technology specification shares many circuits with MPEG-2 and similar image processors, and will therefore probably not require very much new circuit scale. As a result, most equipment manufacturers will probably be able to develop receivers supporting streaming video with little or no added cost, according to Microsoft.

Video in DSP

Imaizumi of RealNetworks, on the other hand, believes that, “New encoding/decoding ideas will continue to be developed, and image quality will keep on improving.” As a result, he claims it is impossible to freeze decoder specifications. People in the industry have pointed out that it is difficult for RealNetworks to freeze the specifications because it already supports multiple encoding schemes.

The firm has turned to DSP, because MPU load can be lightened by leaving the majority of decoder processing to the DSP implemented with the software. The firm has entered into a tie-up with DSP major Texas Instruments Inc (TI), and is now porting Real Player to the TMS320C6000 series of chips. The first port will be to the C62xx series, starting with the C6211 running at 150MHz, which is designed to handle 358 x 288 pixel common intermediate format (CIF) images. RealNetworks plans to provide support for streaming data at a quality equivalent to standard TV through software optimization. Dissipation is said to be about 1W.

The software will then be ported to the C67xx series, and the top-of-the-line C64xx series chips. The firm claims that once the software runs on the C64xx series, the operating frequency required for content processing will drop, along with dissipation. This will make it possible to process not only RealVideo and RealAudio with a single chip, but MPEG-2 and other data as well.

MPU Designs First

In advance of these methods being implemented commercially, a number of set-top boxes called “broadband tuners” have already hit the market, which process streamed data with the MPU. In Japan, they have been commercialized by Japan Computer Corp and NTT-ME Corp. Sony has released AV equipment designed to handle broadband data, especially audio. In Europe, Finland’s Nokia has developed the Mediaterminal, a set-top box that handles both digital broadcasting and broadband. Both set-top boxes handle RealVideo or Windows Media Video.

Most of these set-top boxes use technology originally developed for the PC. Most are designed for the 86-family microprocessor, for Windows or Linux operating systems (OS). Sony, for example, uses an 800MHz Celeron and Windows 2000, while Japan Computer offers a 266MHz 86-family Geode microprocessor (from National Semiconductor Corp of the US), integrating various AV circuits for TV signal output and Linux. Nokia has chosen a 566MHz Celeron with Linux.

Although it is only a reference design, Broadcom Corp of the US used a standard MIPS-compatible architecture microprocessor, popular in embedded equipment applications (Fig 6). Rich Nelson, senior director of Marketing, Broadband Communications Business Unit at Broadcom, commented, “This approach means we can use a lot of the ICs and other components originally developed for digital broadcast equipment.”

Network Connection

The Hikari Service Architecture Consortium (HSAC) is now formulating specifications for the network-terminal interface, hoping to complete work in the 2001 fiscal year.

The group appears to be aiming at a system where the user sends a content request and data concerning his playback environment to the network side. The network retrieves the requested content, and checks the user’s environment for the encoding scheme, copyright technology and other points. The network then decides if the environment is one authorized by the copyright holder, converts the data to other coding schemes as required, and transmits it to the user.

HSAC is defining the interface specifications between the set-top box and the network. In this example, the specifications would include the content request and playback environment description language. Once the interface is defined concretely, it will be possible to freely market equipment providing network-interactive services. NTT-BB is developing a home gateway based on the specification.

The same trend is emerging outside Japan. The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA), for example, offers two profiles to suit different network data rates: 64 kbits/s and 1.5 Mbits/s. The latter is designed for use on broadband networks, using MPEG-4 Advanced Simple Profile Level 3 for image, and High Quality Profile Level 2 for voice.

by Masaharu Tanaka and Phil Keys

  • Websites:
    Asahi National Broadcasting: http://www.tv-asahi.co.jp/anb/kokusai
    Broadcom: http://www.broadcom.com
    Fuji Television Network: http://www.fujitv.co.jp/en
    Hikari Service Architecture Consortium: http://www.hikari-sac.org/e/index-e.html
    ISMA (Internet Streaming Media Alliance): http://www.ism-alliance.org
    It’s Communications: http://www.itscom.jp/(Japanese only)
    Japan Computer: http://www.jcc.co.jp
    Japan Telecom: http://www.japan-telecom.co.jp/english/index.html
    Matsushita Electric Industrial: http://www.panasonic.co.jp/global/index_gw.html
    Microsoft: http://www.microsoft.com
    National Semiconductor: http://www.national.com
    Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East: http://www.ntt-east.co.jp/index_e.html
    Nippon Television Network: http://www.ntv.co.jp/english
    Nokia: http://www.nokia.com
    NTT Broadband Initiative: http://www.ntt-bb.com/NTT-BBe/index.html
    NTT-ME: http://www.ntt-me.co.jp/(Japanese only)
    QB: http://www.qb.com/en/index.html
    RealNetworks: http://www.realnetworks.com
    SKY Perfect Communications: http://www.skyperfectv.co.jp/en
    Sony: http://www.sony.co.jp/en/index.html
    Television Tokyo Channel 12: http://www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/(Japanese only)
    Texas Instruments: http://www.ti.com
    Tokyo Broadcasting System: http://www.tbs.co.jp/index.html
    Tokyo FM Broadcasting: http://www.tokyofm-nyc.com
    Usen: http://www.usen.ne.jp/(Japanese only)

    (December 2001 Issue, Nikkei Electronics Asia)

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