Channel Infinity

One of the supposed killer advantages of IPTV over traditional cable — that an IP architecture provides an unlimited smorgasbord of  video choices, versus packed-to-gills RF networks – looks a lot less lethal these days.

Reason #1: Switched digital video. Cable sees this as kind of a silver bullet that will let them offer a "virtually unlimited" number of HD channels (so says Time Warner Cable). Cablevision has pegged a more finite figure of 500 HD channels through SDV, but you get the idea.

Poof! So dissolves the alleged primary "coolness" (opens in new tab) of AT&T’s slow-to-get-rolling IPTV service U-verse. And, for that matter, there goes any sustainable advantage of DirecTV’s My-Channel-Count-Is-Bigger-Than-Yours marketing stratagem.

Note that getting SDV deployed doesn’t have to be a months-long process. Cox Communications VP of video engineering James Kelso says its Northern Virginia market was up and running with BigBand Networks’ system in 6 weeks.

Kelso wouldn’t say how much bandwidth Cox expects to get back — or how much HD it will add — once it goes live with SDV in the next 30 days in the Virginia market. But he did say Cox Northern Virginia is switching more than 100 channels. 

"We’re being very aggressive with switched,” Kelso said. “We’ll still broadcast the most popular channels. But if you’re going to be aggressive with SDV, you’re doing almost everything [in the switched group]."

Reason #2 why IPTV isn’t scaring cable guys is because… they’re looking to co-opt IPTV themselves, for either multiplatform-video delivery (e.g. to the PC) or even to a TV set-top. A telling detail from the CableLabs summer tech conference was that attendees voted the most promising idea to be a video-over-cable-modem demo from Harmonic.

The point is that there aren’t especially tough technical challenges for cable to get to a bazillion channels.

The hard part? Figuring out how to monetize a bazillion channels. For one thing, that means getting better navigational interfaces on TVs to be able to find what you want. 

Or an on-screen guide that suggests stuff you might like, culled from multi-gigabytes of programming. TiVo has a head start with genuinely useful features like WishList.

That’s the sort of thing people think is cool. As for "IPTV" as a marketing buzzword, the coolness factor may have expired. Remember when "e-commerce" was a cutting-edge concept?