VOD Finally Makes a Run Along DSL Lines

Following a few fits and starts, video services are quickly becoming more and more a part of digital subscriber line providers' portfolios.

"Video over DSL, or any kind of video service, is a way to entice customers to broadband," said Rob Pickering, chief technology executive for ZoomTown.com, the Cincinnati-based subsidiary of Broadwing Inc.

In October, ZoomTown.com announced it would build on an earlier agreement with Intertainer Inc. and conduct a market test of DSL video-on-demand service with the help of Intertainer Inc., set-top box maker uniView Technologies Corp. and Microsoft Corp.

The latest DSL provider to jump on the VOD bandwagon is San Diego, Calif.-based Internet Express, which will use technology from MeTV Network Inc. to try a VOD service beginning in January.

For MeTV, the deal is the latest of a string of announcements. Since June, the company has forged deals with New York-based Firstgate.net and iNYC.com; Virginia-based IBS Networks; Austin, Texas-based Jump.Net Inc.; and Seattle-based Speakeasy.net.

The deals generally involve the creation of co-branded Web pages on providers' sites to allow access to MeTV's library of "B" movies and music videos. In addition to Internet Express, Qwest Communications International Inc. and Speakeasy.net will try VOD over DSL next year.

While much of the attention garnered by video over DSL deployments has been focused on Qwest's very-high-speed DSL (VDSL)-based service in Phoenix-which has attracted about 50,000 subscribers-the Intertainer and MeTV services will be delivered via asynchronous DSL (ADSL).

But the services offered by Intertainer and MeTV differ in a significant way: MeTV's scheme utilizes a subscriber's personal computer to decode video, while the ZoomTown.com market test will utilize a uniView DSL set-top.

MeTV outfits a subscriber's PC with a wireless transceiver from technology partner X10 Wireless Inc., which is attached to the computer's video and PCI sound cards. The video signal is transmitted, using a proprietary wireless format, to a receiving unit connected to a TV's video input, or the line input of a VCR.

Through software enhancements, the user can control the video using a remote control.

By placing video servers in its DSL partners' facilities, MeTV can deliver video content to subscribers over secure, private networks. The company is using Microsoft's MPEG-4 (Moving Pictures Expert Group) video codec to create video at 24 frames per second.

The set-top box will be the ultimate convergence device, but with most DSL networks limited by bandwidth constrictions, "it doesn't make sense to incur the cost" of a set-top box, noted MeTV president and CEO Jeff Pescatello. A hot-rodded PC can be used as a workable set-top to deliver video at rates between 500 and 700 kilobits per second.

"We can adjust" when networks start to accommodate higher speeds, said Pescatello.

For now, however, adding a video service not only makes a better case for DSL adoption, it can also be used as a carrot to entice subscribers to move up to higher speed connections, such as 440 to 640 kbps.

"The DSL guys are looking for reasons to upsell the customer," said Pecatello.

In turning to relatively low-cost content such as "B" movies, DSL providers can offer subscribers "niche" programming often not available on cable or satellite.

By supplementing conventional video services, video over DSL "gets telcos into the video game today," said Pescatello.

In the meantime, Pescatello said, MeTV will "watch the market and adjust our business accordingly," as copper networks are revved up and the set-top box model becomes affordable. "There's no question prices are going to come down."

ZoomTown.com-which, in the Cincinnati area, has one of the best-penetrated markets for DSL service at 35,000 subscribers-is moving from the video-to-the-PC service it now offers to a video-to-the-TV model using a set-top.

ZoomTown.com has been delivering video to PCs at 1 megabit per second, Pickering said. The company has developed techniques that combine network enhancements, including improving DSLAM (digital subscriber line access multiplexers) provisioning and traffic routing, with improvements to the Windows operating system protocol stack to 1 mbps bit rates.

It's unclear at this point how ZoomTown.com will migrate its service to set-top boxes. Pickering said pricing models for the DSL boxes have yet to be determined.

Undaunted by the added cost of the set-top is Intertainer president and CEO Jonathan Taplin.

"The good thing about video over DSL," which is essentially video over IP, is that "it is incredibly inexpensive to deploy" compared to sending MPEG-2 video down the network, he said.

The current version of Windows Media Player, which includes enhancements to the MPEG-4 video codec and digital-rights management, helps deliver quality video at lower bit rates, Taplin said.