New Verizon Trials Open Path To Fixed-Mobile Convergence

Ruchir Rodrigues, VP, product platforms, Verizon

Ruchir Rodrigues, VP, product platforms, Verizon

January 14, 2010 – Verizon is embarking on an aggressive path to TV and mobile service convergence with new trials focused on use of smart phones as remote control devices and for other applications with the TV.

These latest moves come as Verizon continues to leverage its ability to deliver IP-based applications to set-tops with launch of caller ID, new widget apps and guide enhancements, all of which serve as a precursor to the convergence possibilities that will come with migration to IPTV. “We’re definitely looking at taking our video totally over IP,” said Ruchir Rodrigues, vice president for product platforms at Verizon. “It comes with benefits of being able to stream MPEG-4. So we are looking at streaming completely in IP.”

This will be done incrementally region by region with offers of tiered IP-based services that can be accommodated over hybrid set-tops and all-IPTV service requiring new set-tops. “It’s not going to be a rip and replacement of the whole plant,” Rodrigues said in a recent interview. “When we reach that [transition] point there will be a base that’s on a plan that does both [IP MPEG-4 and traditional MPEG-2], and then we will slowly transition. When we move into a region which supports complete IPTV then we get them a box that supports IPTV.”

Moving to an all-IPTV platform will facilitate seamless convergence between mobile and FiOS as Verizon Wireless intensifies pursuit of IP-based mobile apps with its launch of 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution), which is slated to roll out in 25 to 30 markets this year. But, meanwhile, the carrier sees a way to add convergence benefits for mobile subscribers who are also FiOS TV subscribers right away.

“As we’ve seen the whole smart phone market take off, it just makes sense that you make the smart phone the remote control,” Rodrigues said, noting trials were getting underway in Texas and California at the end of 2009. “You have a smart phone; you come into the home, and that’s your remote control. We’ll do trials to see what feedback we get from people.”

“It’s not limited to controlling the TV as a remote control,” he added. “You can introduce other applications. So let’s say you took a lot of pictures on your smart phone. You come home and you want to show your kids. You have your smart phone in your hand, click the picture and it’s on your TV.”

This initial step toward convergence isn’t far off. “If we really find great feedback, then you’ll see a lot of this coming into the marketplace [in early 2010],” Rodrigues said.

Verizon recently reported its fiber-to-the-home network was on target to pass 15 million premises by the end of 2009, with FiOS TV and Internet signups totaling 2.7 million and 3.3 million, respectively, as of the end of the third quarter. The carrier is now delivering 138 HDTV channels and has expanded its monthly VOD title count to over 18,000, 2,400 of which are in HD.

The new Caller ID service, initially launched in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Texas with more launches planned, allows users to pause their program, whether broadcast or on demand, to take a call. Or they can send the call to voice mail. Offered at no added cost, the service also allows users to determine duration of the alert and where it’s positioned on the screen.

Other recent application enhancements include introduction of new navigational features and interactive games. For example, the FiOS TV Interactive Media Guide (IMG) has been upgraded to speed VOD navigation with personal features that include recommendations based on the subscriber’s viewing history and a “more-like-this” option that allows users to find content based on similarities in genres and casts. New “Quick Guide” options speed users’ ability to set parental controls, record shows and perform other tasks.

These latest additions closed out a year of major enhancements that saw the introduction of Verizon’s “Widget Bazaar,” a platform through which the carrier has introduced TV-friendly social networking interfaces for Twitter and Facebook users (see September issue, p. 18), and personal media management capabilities that allow DVR customers to wirelessly stream personal photos, videos and music from PCs to TVs. Photo management includes the ability to use the Facebook widget to share pictures on a portion of the screen without interrupting TV programming and to access a Kodak online account for display of photos on the TV screen.

“We started with the premise of, let’s enhance the experience for the consumer,” Rodrigues said. “So if I’m watching a show, I would like to see what other people have to say about that movie, or if I’m on the guide and don’t what I want to watch, I want to see what people thought about this movie.

“But you don’t want it to be an experience which is very disconnected,” he continued. “You don’t want the customer to go into an application and then come back in and out. So we scaled the video, and we showed all the tweets on the side.”

With an abundance of bandwidth to work with Verizon is also able to enhance the marketability of VOD content by showing complete posters of the titles. “If you go to our VOD store, you actually see the poster view,” Rodrigues noted.

This led to further enhancements. “We saw a lot of people actually get engaged when they see the posters,” he said. “So then we started categorizing – all HD, all action, and [all those categories] opened up into a poster view. So we are definitely looking at those ways of enhancing the whole browsing experience.”

As previously reported (July, p. 14) Verizon is also pursuing development of Web-to-TV services that bring full content, not just widgets, to the FiOS TV experience. And it’s now testing TV Everywhere with Time Warner programmers TNT and TBS with expectations that more content affiliations will be announced this year.

How soon that IP programming stream will be available to mobile users is largely a matter of costs, Rodrigues noted. “It’s kind of costly for us to consume real-time video on a cell phone,” he said. “If it becomes an economical solution where we can stream videos real time onto a cell phone, then I don’t think we’ll mind opening it up to the mobile customer.”

That, of course, is where 4G comes in. Addressing the LTE Americas 2009 Conference in November, Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone said the company will pursue 4G rollout aggressively by overlaying the new network onto the existing 3G infrastructure. This is not an evolutionary step as was the case in previous migration steps on the CDMA platform, because LTE is based on incompatible GSM-based technology.

But the ability to share backhaul, leverage the efficiencies of launching on a single block of 700 MHz spectrum and utilize existing real estate will allow Verizon Wireless to complete its nationwide LTE buildout by end of 2013, Melone said. “This past summer we made great strides towards this goal,” he noted “Our phase 4 field-level tests were extremely productive as we tested applications of streaming video, file transfers, web browsing and VoIP.

“We do hear a little skepticism from time to time from outside quarters regarding our ability to meet these aggressive timelines,” he added, “and while there is always some risk in going first, I will tell you that we are exactly where we expected to be at this time. Actually on some fronts – like backhaul readiness – we’re even ahead. We fully expect to meet our deployment plan.”