Evidence keeps rolling in that suggests the network infrastructures on which business and consumer communications rely are in flux and transition. Last week, IMS Research released a report that highlighted a worldwide acceleration of the move toward IPTV. As we've said before, the success or failure of new services and applications -- even those aimed primarily at consumers -- is important because they create the financial conditions under which business services will be considered.
It's a very positive story. According to IMS, tier two and three telcos that serve rural areas are getting more involved in IPTV through infrastructure upgrades and deals with major carriers. By 2012, the study says, there will be more than 52 million pay television subscribers worldwide. The size of that increase is put into context by the fact that it equates to an annual increase of 30 percent in Internet protocol set-top box (IP STB) shipments.
The United States is hardly the leader in IPTV. This week, Dittberner released a report with a number of very interesting findings that, taken together, spell a rapidly expanding worldwide market. The report indicated that Western Europe and Asia are a closely bunched first and second, respectively, and that Asia will move into first place this year. Perhaps more importantly, the number of IPTV subscribers increased a healthy 12 percent during the quarter. The leading provider is France Telecom, with more than 1 million IPTV subscribers, a 16 percent increase. PCCW and Free were second and third, respectively. The highest penetration was Hong Kong, with France coming in second. The U.S. was in tenth. The top two middleware suppliers are Thomson and UTStarcom.
This Light Reading survey of the top 10 IPTV providers in the world does three things: It provides a terrific overview of the industry and its leaders, offers a multitude of links for those interested in further research and, finally, validates the idea that IPTV progress is about the health of the overall telecommunication sector as well as how to distribute entertainment video. The piece says IPTV is both a new revenue stream and a glue that makes it less likely for subscribers to move to another carrier. For vendors, the idea simply is that adding video to a telco network is a significant undertaking and, as the commentary says, not cheap. The top 10 providers, according to Light Reading, are FastWeb, TeliaSonera, Belgacom, China Telecom, Chunghwa Telecom, Telef�nica, Neuf Cegetel, PCCW, France Telecom and Iliad (Free).
The progress won't be without fits and starts. The third-largest telecom carrier, Qwest, this week said that it will not launch an IPTV network due to expense and the fact that many young people are bypassing television and watching on computers and phones. Direct broadcast satellite (DBS) provider DirecTv will continue to serve up the video component of the service provider's bundle. In an interview, Qwest CEO Edward Mueller said the company is satisfied with DirecTV and believes it is better off leaving video to the specialists. The bandwidth that would be used for an IPTV network, Mueller said, can be better used for other purposes.
It is difficult to argue, however, that the future of video entertainment -- or, at least, a large chunk of it -- doesn't belong to the Web. As promising as IPTV is today, it is important to keep in mind that a much bigger pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow. In this case, it is possible to set a date for the pot of gold's arrival: February 2009. At that point, analog television broadcasting will cease, and millions of folks -- The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 21 million households and 69 million sets -- will have to make a decision on how to get their television. The industry that presents these orphaned viewers with the simplest way to get the programming they want will make huge customer gains.