Ireland gets switched on


4 Jun 2007

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When the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ was first uttered, TV was a box in the living room with its own dedicated connection to the outside world. Less than 50 years after Marshall McLuhan’s words became common currency, the sentiment still holds true even if the technology has changed utterly. Digital TV is no longer the endgame; merely the start.

That’s because TV content is breaking the chain that connects it umbilically to the cable network or satellite dish in the home. You can now watch programmes on your PC, mobile phone, or even gadgets like iPods. This has massive implications: why wait for a weekly 10pm slot to catch the latest episode of your favourite show and why be sitting at home when it happens?

Ian Fogg, senior analyst with Jupiter Research Europe, talks of the ‘three screens’ effect. “Consumers will increasingly have a choice of where and when they watch TV – in their home on the PC or TV or outside the home on a mobile device,” he says.

Both consumers and providers of content are trying to understand what this means. “They give the consumer tremendously greater choice going forward and they give operators new threats – such as how much to charge for each model and whether to have different release windows [for content] on each.”

As far as Irish consumers are concerned, competition in the traditional TV space is hotting up and that can only be a good thing. UPC, the new name for cable TV companies NTL and Chorus, has 594,100 TV customers in Ireland, with 272,000 still on analogue, 210,800 using digital and 111,300 on the MMDS platform. Sky Ireland, which has aggressively driven digital TV in this country, has 484,000 subscribers – roughly one in three Irish homes.

So-called ‘time shifting’ TV is likely to be one of the key areas of competition between the two. This simply means watching TV when you want it as opposed to when it’s originally broadcast. Instead of messing around with DVD or video recorders, you just programme the digital set-top box with a few easy clicks of the remote control. With Sky+, you can even programme the box via text message when you’re out of the house.

Sky has an estimated 80,000 Irish subscribers who use its Sky+ service since it was launched in 2003. UPC’s long-promised personal video recorder will debut in July as part of the company’s €300m network upgrade programme.

The service will be aggressively priced, promises UPC sales and marketing director Mark Coan. Both systems will offer roughly similar features, with capacity for storing around 80 hours of TV content.

Video on demand (VOD) is another tantalising prospect, having been hyped up for long enough. Sky offers a kind of VOD service that involves downloading the week’s most popular content to the set-top box so that users can instantly access it.

This compensates for the fact that the satellite delivery mechanism isn’t really set up to offer proper VOD. As a cable operator, UPC has the superior network for delivering this service but we won’t see it in Ireland before next year.

However, Coan confirms that the new video recording set-top boxes will work with VOD. “Once the boxes are deployed, customers will be able to get video on demand. We’re already putting in place the foundations for that,” he says.

High-definition TV (HDTV) is another key battleground and this could be more closely fought than the DVR bout. HD is a much easier concept to grasp – it boasts four times the picture quality of standard definition TV and cinema-like Dolby surround sound.

There’s a brilliant clarity and lifelike level of detail to the images, with the added advantage of more and more content becoming available in this format.

In less than a year since launch, it’s believed that around 12,500 people subscribe to Sky’s HD service in Ireland, giving it faster growth rates than Sky+, which has been available since 2003. UPC says it’s aiming to launch its own HD offering later this year. “I think the UPC-Sky competition is going to be a huge driver of value in the market,” Coan says.

Aside from the pay services, there will be other options for when the analogue TV signal stops in 2012. The Government is almost midway through a two-year test for digital terrestrial TV (DTT), which will be available free to air for the price of a digital set-top box.

Phase two began in February and is currently under way, with the scope broadened to include a larger number of TV and digital radio channels. Phase three of the trial is likely to include demos of a high-definition service and it’s rumoured that this could involve GAA matches being broadcast to part of the test audience in HD.

According to Pat Kidney, managing consultant with trial managers Analysys Mason, Ireland is benefiting from the latest technologies such as the MPEG 4 compression standard rather than MPEG 2 used elsewhere.

“The advantage of that is, it allows you to have more channels. And, MPEG 4 is a prerequisite of HDTV,” he points out. So, HDTV won’t be exclusively for subscribers to pay TV services, but you will still need a HD set-top box and a HD-ready TV. Fortunately by the time DTT becomes nationally available, prices of both are likely to have dropped.

Turning to the second screen – the PC – there’s a lot of activity around offering TV over the internet now that broadband makes downloading large files much easier. Everyone wants a piece of this, from Amazon in the US to Channel 4, BT and others in the UK. Here, Sky subscribers can access content through the Sky Anytime PC website and UPC is making noises about similar services.

Eircom is also eyeing up the TV market. Gerry Culligan, director of consumer market with Eircom, is all too aware of TV’s strategic importance to telecoms providers. “We can’t continue to provide a basic telephone service if our customers have moved on,” Culligan says. To that end, it’s done a deal to offer Setanta Sports content for download to Eircom broadband customers. Similar deals are also in the pipeline.

More intriguingly, the company is also upgrading its network in parts of Dublin to run video DSL. This would make Eircom a TV provider in the future, using on-demand and interactive services as a competitive proposition. “The business models have yet to emerge,” Culligan acknowledges. “We’ll run a commercial trial and a soft launch – I’d see that certainly happening within a 12- to 18-month time frame.”

Another company with an Irish base but a global brief is Babelgum, one of a clutch of new internet TV providers that are emerging in this space. Joost, backed by the founders of Skype, has already been the subject of much interest and hype.

Dublin-based Babelgum will offer content worldwide over the internet. What makes it different is that anyone can go to the site, download the viewer application and watch programmes in full screen, high quality for nothing. “The model is, it’s free for users and will be supported by targeted advertising,” explains Erik Lumer, founder and CEO.

Unlike broadband TV services such as Sky’s that involve downloading content before watching, Babelgum uses streaming technology so users can start watching straight away. It will begin public beta testing on 31 May, with content such as short movies, animation, sports footage, fashion and documentaries.

Lumer is clear: Babelgum is not an alternative to video websites but to TV itself. “Today, 99pc of video on the internet is sporadic viewing of short clips,” he says. “We’re moving into a space of a type of content that today is not consumed over the internet. The real challenge is, at the content level can we offer something that’s really competing with television?”

Mobile TV, the third of the three screens, is currently in its infancy but is taking big steps. It initially seems to be a complement rather than a competitor to TV. Although streamed content has been available through 3G services for some time, the most significant recent development is surely mobile broadcast TV.

O2 is currently trialling the technology with a test group of 350 customers in the greater Dublin area. The service has 13 channels, including the four main Irish ones, some sports and news, as well as specially developed music and games channels.

Picture quality will go a long way towards determining if this is just an interesting technology or whether it’s got mainstream appeal. On that front, O2’s trial service scores well. Siliconrepublic.com has seen O2’s service and Vodafone’s broadcast TV service in Italy, which is one of the first European markets to offer broadcast TV commercially. In Italy, the picture was occasionally pixelated but remained pretty watchable even for fast-moving images like a football match.

While pictures were superior on the Irish trial, it should be pointed out that O2 is using a better quality handset, the Nokia N92, whereas more moderately priced devices will need to be available when the service is launched commercially. The Nokia N92 has a large, clear screen and displays the images crisply with a lot of detail. The stereo audio is best experienced through headphones.

Unlike with streaming, the Digital Video Broadcasting – Handheld (DVB-H) signal doesn’t degenerate if more people use it simultaneously. O2 hasn’t settled on a pricing model yet.

The jury’s still very much out on mobile TV, with various analysts and industry watchers debating if it’s best suited to bite-size content or whether longer programming like broadcast mobile is viable on such a small screen. Despite potential limitations around the screen size, subscribers in established markets like Japan and South Korea have taken to it in great numbers. According to Screen Digest, six million people watch broadcast TV on their handsets.

In Italy, 3 has already amassed 850,000 subscribers, offering a range of channels on two DVB-H-enabled handsets from LG and Samsung. Its price plan is €3 per day, €9 per week, €19 monthly or €29 for three months. Vodafone is testing a service with 8,500 users and a similar spread of programming with sport and movies also figuring heavily.

Whatever the future holds and whatever the combination of three screens people prefer, it seems that the couch potato is unlikely to be an endangered species. We’re not quite at the stage where, as with landline phones, people jettison their home TVs in favour of handheld devices or computers. That day is no longer such a radical idea, however. Our viewing habits look certain to change to a greater or lesser degree, but not the fact that somewhere, somehow, we’ll be watching moving pictures.

King of all media?

Who said Eamon Dunphy (pictured) doesn’t do early mornings? Not only is he breaking new ground for TV, he does so first thing on a Monday. It probably helps that he has to travel no further than his sitting room.

You won’t find Dunphy’s Last Word on Football on any traditional TV channel, though: it’s made specifically for downloading to a mobile phone for subscribers to 3’s mobile network.

The show is the perfect example of streamlined new media production. Unlike in a TV studio, there are just two cameras, one fixed and another handheld, along with a small lighting rig. The entire set-up takes just half an hour. “TV production costs are coming down all the time,” agrees Daire Whelan of Random Thoughts, the company that produces the show for 3.

New technology means the show can be produced cost-effectively, without appearing cheap. “You’ve got to pare it right down to make it available to people. You can’t be going in with high-end production,” adds Whelan. Footage from the cameras will be matched up in the editing room later, a process that takes far longer than the recording itself.

When siliconrepublic.com paid a recent visit, Dunphy was relaxed and in good form at his home as he talked through the weekend’s Premiership matches and previewed that week’s Champions League fixtures. He ran through the 15-minute show seamlessly in a single take, with his answers prompted by a producer posing questions off-camera.

Dunphy himself is keenly aware of the advantages offered by the mobile format. He likes the extra time to expand on his thoughts rather than packaging them into easy – and easily misunderstood – soundbites. “I have more time to say things; to elaborate and qualify,” says Dunphy. “TV is restricted in that you can’t get into the nuances of it. There’s an immediacy here – it’s direct to the person with their phone.”

He’s also open to the interactive possibilities new media like mobile and blogs offer. A feedback forum, where mobile viewers could send in videos of themselves to Dunphy, is in development.

By Gordon Smith