Advantages with quad play services

Quad play is the new buzz word for an increased range of communications services, initially aimed at the consumer. So what's in it for business?

We all know that the world of IT is full of buzz words and buzz phrases, yet none have been as overused in recent years as "killer application" and "triple play". Usually in tandem.

Be they broadband access product suppliers, resellers, telcos or service providers, all have been searching for this Holy Grail of computing for years now.

Why? For those who could use a significant source of new revenue streams - think many (and major) telcos and service providers - the answer is that they always saw the killer application as that revenue stream. And that killer application was triple play - voice, video and data.

This has now been superseded by quad play, typically defined as triple play plus IP television delivery.

From a service provider perspective, the obvious attraction of adding IP-based services such as television and video on demand, is that they can realise several times the revenue of a basic internet access service.

If you look at what satellite television viewers in the UK pay for their basic package from a provider such as Sky, it is more than the cost of unlimited broadband internet access. And that provides the user with TV, pure and simple, plus these add-ons that are pushed to them regardless of their actual merit.

After all, just how many viewers really want to gamble on some balls coming out of a bingo machine at 4am in the morning? Or buy the latest "does it all" gadget from some unknown American or Taiwanese manufacturer at some ungodly hour?

NTL recently launched what it calls its "quadruple-play" offering, which consists of digital TV, broadband and fixed and mobile telephony services. However, this is very much aimed at home users and not the enterprise.

What is required for the latter is the ability to offer a package that is attractive, both from a cost and content perspective. At the moment, the content options are less obvious than in providing a package to the home.

Options such as internet conferencing make sense for the enterprise, as defined for business needs rather than simply offering chat/messenger service support.

Scottish start-up Video3, for example, has redefined internet conferencing as a one-to-many broadcast service that is being used for training and "virtual" seminars by bodies such as the health service.

Video3's software product and service, called Electern, effectively lets you deliver a Powerpoint-style presentation with live video, interactive chat and Q&A sessions across the internet.

Broadband Testing Labs did a session of several hours using the software integrated with a many-to-many conferencing tool the company also sells.

The session included several sites in the UK and France, and it beat sitting for hours at terminally depressing airports (pun intended).

Video3 is currently speaking to content providers, quad play suppliers and set top box suppliers about providing the system as a value-add service that makes real sense to the enterprise.

One such supplier is FourCast Media, a Sheffield-based start-up that has released the self-contained Quadplay system. But is there really anything new here? If those quad play components we have already defined form the "killer application", then we can argue that all those elements are already with us.

And indeed they are. Voice over IP, IP television and digital video, broadband data access, internet browsing - all simple and all effective, day-in, day-out and largely free of charge, once the internet access itself is paid for.

The problem is, current exposure to these technologies is typically via a mish-mash of low-quality applications, which are actually limited in their usability.

The likes of Skype, YouTube and others certainly have their place, but they do not make a truly professional alternative to the Sky TV, broadband internet access and PSTN/mobile telephony combination that many households and offices in the UK (and equivalent combinations across Europe, South-East Asia and the US) are currently subscribing to.

But why are most of us - whether in the office or home - spending huge amounts of money on this kind of combination of services? Surely there is a more efficient and more effective alternative?

There is also the issue of voice services - should a user be forced to take the IP telephony route, or should they have a more flexible option where the mobile and IP telephony worlds meet?

According to Craig Packer, chief executive of FourCast Media, this kind of flexibility is now a pre- requisite in bringing broadband internet packages into the workplace.

The company is offering a complete delivery system including the Quadplayer set top box which provides domestic, business and public utility customers with simultaneous IP television, video on demand, data, and voice, including wireless.

These services are delivered down a single, standard internet connection - either wired or wireless - and designed for users across the board. "The technology is equally applicable in the business environment as in the home," said Packer.

"It also offers significant enhanced communication capabilities for local authorities, schools and colleges, as well as healthcare organisations, professional and financial services and security," he said.

Craig Easley, vice-president of marketing at Carrier Ethernet supplier Actelis Networks, believes it is inevitable that business and residential subscribers will look to maximise the cost and convenience advantages of a single provider of voice, video, internet and mobile services.

However, he said a lack of fibre optic cabling has frustrated operator's plans to deliver quad play services to date.

An alternative to fibre optics is copper, and Easley claims that Carrier Ethernet over copper can provide a 10-fold increase in the bandwidth in the access network over the existing voice-grade wiring.

"Delivering high performance Carrier Ethernet services over the copper infrastructure is an attractive way to upgrade the capacity of the access network without the need or expense of deploying a new fibre optic infrastructure," he said.

In business-to-business communications, the advantages of being able to distribute simultaneous video, voice and data streams are unarguable. As mobile technology also comes increasingly online with quad play services - a key direction according to Packer - so it also brings a wide array of new technology devices to market.

Already there are networked VoIP/Wi-Fi telephones, streaming media to mobile devices and many other convergent innovations. This spells opportunity for product suppliers, service providers and early adopter enterprises in equal measure.

Steve Broadhead is director Broadband-Testing Labs

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