Imagine having access to five episodes of, say, Saat Phere, a serial on Zee TV, and being able to edit them to reach a fresh conclusion -- using some editing software and a few alternative episodes offered by Zee.
Or think about pressing buttons on the television remote to book tickets for the latest Yash Raj movie at the neighbourhood multiplex. Or consider this: an unyielding couch potato, you don't want to get up to locate your cell phone for that sms vote your favourite singer needs to win the talent show. You can now cast the vote with the help of -- surprise, surprise -- the TV remote itself.
For television buffs, this fantasy will ring true before the year is out. For, at least two private telecom operators are promising to offer all this and more through their Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) services.
IPTV is basically a real time broadcasting system for delivering television programmes to households through a broadband connection using Internet protocols or systems. Normally, IPTV offers what's termed as "triple play," that is, video on demand (VOD), voice over IP (VOIP) or phone service, and web access.
But its biggest benefit is that it allows the viewer a two-way communication for interactive television which is not possible in direct-to-home (DTH) TV.
To receive IPTV, the TV needs a set top box to decode the IP video into standard signals. When a modem is added to the line that's bringing in the IPTV signals, it allows you to access the Internet on a personal computer.
When they launch their services, telecom operators Bharti Airtel Limited and Reliance Communications will not be the first ones to get into IPTV. The state-owned telephone companies, MTNL and BSNL, have already unrolled their IPTV commercial service in a limited way.
While IPTV has been discussed for almost two years now, this time the buzz may be for real. A Reliance Communications official says that having failed earlier, the company is starting its IPTV trials afresh in Mumbai (from June 1) in collaboration with Microsoft. Bharti Airtel's test runs have been on for a year and the trials for picture quality, video-on-demand and other services have passed muster.
Sun Microsystems and Tech Mahindra, meanwhile, have entered into an agreement to set up a lab for IPTV solutions. Says Ramesh Mamgain, director (telecom) Sun Microsystems: "Tech Mahindra will be our systems integrator for software and middleware. Together we can offer a complete solution to IPTV operators."
Mamgain says that Sun recently launched a new video-on-demand server in New York to service IPTV players it is negotiating with in India and abroad. Another US-based company, Kasenna, talked about its new server that can service 120,000 customers, at the IPTV Forum seminar held in Delhi a month ago. Zee also sensed an opportunity and set up Digital Media Convergence Limited to function as the content aggregator for IPTV and mobile TV. Says the company's CEO Abhijit Saxena: "We are there for content refurbishment -- that is converting content to suit new delivery platforms including IPTV."
It's not difficult to see why telcos are keen to offer IPTV services. For them, it is a step up the value chain. Says Bharti Airtel president (broadband & telephone services) Atul Bindal: "From the company's point of view, triple play will help curb customer churn. It will also increase ARPUs."
Clearly, IPTV makes sense for telcos considering the pipes that can carry voice, data and now video have already been laid. Compression technology has also improved giving better video quality at lower bandwidths. Prices of international bandwidth and digital storage have declined. Observes Mamgain: "Telcos have no choice but to offer IPTV. Broadband will go free at some stage and pure Internet will not work."
Two, interactivity could be the trump card that a telco could offer. "We will also introduce games on your TV screen which you could play with, say, a friend while he's at his house and you are in your own drawing room," explains Bindal. The interactivity comes alive when you demand a film to be watched at your convenience. When it downloads, it functions almost like your personal DVD player: you could pause and re-start the film at will.
Like video on demand, the time-shift service allows you to order your favourite serial or cricket match in case you have missed it during the live broadcast. The operators are cagey about them but promise a host of other online services.
Before they launch IPTV commercially, both Bharti and Reliance are in a race to wire up homes. Bharti Airtel, for instance, is wiring up the top six to seven towns. It has already laid an optical fibre network of up to 40,000 km. "We are currently offering voice and data to 1.8 million homes and corporates. We have 600,000 DSL customers. We hope to ramp up these numbers fast," says Bindal. He says the television service will be launched first in Delhi.
Reliance, meanwhile, already has 88,000 km of optical fibre network. Sources say it will launch IPTV in 28 cities before the end of the year. The company claims to be wiring up 100,000 households every month and 900,000 homes are already wired.
Despite the buzz, IPTV in India faces a host of challenges. The regulatory challenge is the foremost. For all the readiness of the private operators and the commercial service being operated by MTNL and BSNL, there is no law that covers IPTV. The absence of law could render IPTV services illegal. Speaking at the IPTV seminar, TRAI advisor S K Gupta admitted that the Cable TV Act that regulates television is silent on IPTV and that the matter needs to be studied separately.
There are technological challenges too. Will the telcos be able to meet the huge bandwidth requirements for seamless video telecast? At the seminar, TRAI's Gupta made a point when he said that broadband companies are unable to provide the basic 256 kbps speed that they promise as a result of which TRAI is flooded with customer complaints. But Bindal says that for IPTV, Bharti is providing for 5 mbps in the top six-seven towns and 2 mbps in the other cities.
Experts say that IPTV may face a content crisis too. Plain vanilla TV channels will not drive IPTV as cable meets those needs well. Sun Microsystems' Mamgain says IPTV will need to go beyond cable channels otherwise it won't work. "It has to be all about applications like online commerce and targeted advertising."
Worldwide, there are IPR issues when it comes to IPTV, warns the head of a major cable distribution company. "Why would any broadcaster give his content to be stored in a hard disk? What happens to the repeat telecast rights of films and serials?" he asks.
Last but not the least, the cost of the IPTV set top box may be prohibitive: it is estimated to be upwards of Rs 7,500 which is significantly higher than the price of a DTH or a CAS box.
Telco executives say that the service will be offered at competitive prices. "The strategy is to get 100 per cent of a customer's wallet. Once the pipe enters the house I can offer a slew of services," says Bindal.
Opinion is sharply divided on whether IPTV will succeed. Cable operators would have you believe that it will never take off. However, media analysts estimate there will be a million IPTV customers in the country by 2011. China is estimated to have 14 million by then!