Television From Your Telephone

Rooftop antennas, local cable TV systems and digital satellite systems are some of the more common ways television entertainment is fed into homes now. But could couch potatoes soon get their video fix via the telephone line, too?

TV via a simple telephone line is already happening on a very small scale in the United States, some industry insiders say. But as high-speed Internet connections become more prevalent in American homes, the lines between traditional telephone and television services providers are blurring.

Already, many cable TV providers are expanding their fast broadband home connections to include Voice over IP services, which allow subscribers to use the Internet to place phone calls to anyone worldwide. Since VoIP calls are carried as digital computer data, users can bypass the traditional switched phone network -- and the usual costs of telephone calls.

And such moves by cable TV companies have regional telecommunication companies gearing up to fight back.

"There's already a certainty that telecos will have to offer video services," said Vamsi Sistla, director of broadband and residential entertainment technology research for ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. "They have to hold onto their subscriber base, they have to keep churn [turnover] rates low … Cable TV [companies are] eating their lunch by offering telephone services."

But offering television over the Internet -- TVoIP -- is a technically tricky task for phone companies. Digital TV signals produce data files that are at least an order of magnitude larger than VoIP files. And such large files would choke digital subscriber lines -- or DSL, the telecom industry's high-speed Net connections that are faster than ordinary dial-up connections, but slower than cable TV's broadband.

Several companies, including software giants such as Microsoft and networking equipment makers, have been trying to further the development of TVoIP systems. And UTStarcom, a computer network solutions provider in Alameda, Calif., believes it has a TVoIP solution that could be implemented soon in the United States.

A Vision for Internet TV

The UTStarcom system, mVision, is a collection of powerful computers and software that could be installed along the various parts of a phone company's networks.

Banks of computers at a telecom's central switch office would digitally encode and store television shows in any number of digital formats. Small segments -- say, the first four minutes -- of each program could then be sent to so-called MediaSwitches installed at the various phone switching offices that serve each neighborhood, using dedicated high-speed connections.

Home subscribers would use a Media Console -- a set-top box that connects their TV to the phone company's DSL service -- to access the digitized TV content. When they select a TV program to watch, the Media Console retrieves the first small segment from the neighborhood's MediaSwitch. As that first segment is sent to the customer's home via DSL, the MediaSwitch requests the rest of the program from the computers located at the phone company's central switch office.

MVision also has its own software program to manage and track where each part of every digital program is located on the various parts of the network. That way, only the specific segments that are needed in one particular neighborhood are sent from the central computers to the switches.

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