AT&T has just rolled out the new wireless connection option supplied by Cisco Systems across its entire U-verse footprint, says David Christopher, chief marketing officer for AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. The company is charging a one-time TV service activation fee of $36, a one-time equipment fee of $49 and a monthly recurring fee of $7 per wireless receiver with a limit of two receivers per household.
“For decades the TV outlet has dictated how viewers can arrange their furniture and where they place their TV,” Christopher notes. “Now, for the first time, customers have the freedom to move the TV virtually whenever and wherever they want to, without a special appointment with a service technician.”
The new service is the culmination of a two-year development effort between Cisco and AT&T, says David Alsobrook, director of business development for Connected Home Solutions at Cisco’s Service Provider Video Technology Group. The system requires that TV signals be distributed in the IP mode native to U-verse and many other telcos’ TV services.
“A couple of years ago we did some demos with wireless and finally got good enough to do reliable multiple streams of HD video in the home,” Alsobrook says. “At that point we began working with AT&T to integrate the platform with their back office and the Microsoft Mediaroom middleware.”
The system can serve up to three receivers in the home with either an HD or SD stream delivered simultaneously to each receiver at under 10 megabits per second, Alsobrook says. “AT&T has limited the connections to two receivers per home,” he adds. “Whether you serve two or three depends on what margin of safety you want to set, but we’re confident this version of the platform will support three.”
The solution uses standard 802.11n Wi-Fi technology but has been refined to ensure the interference, latency and bit-error-rate parameters comport with the TV quality benchmarks AT&T has set for HPNA (Home Phoneline Networking Alliance) delivery of U-verse service in the home. “I think the performance we have on wireless is very, very close to what we have on wired,” Alsobrook says. “You wouldn’t see AT&T rolling this out nationwide if they didn’t have confidence in the quality.”
He declines to discuss the technical details of what Cisco has done to achieve this level of robustness, other than to mention that “we had to do some things like making the channel algorithm as good as possible to compensate for interference. We’ve tweaked things, but it’s fully compatible with the standard.”
The signals operate at the 5 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum level rather than the 2.4 GHz tier employed with the carrier’s Wi-Fi-enabled U-verse home gateways, so customers must use a separate wireless access point connected to the gateway via an Ethernet cord to distribute the TV signals wirelessly. There are no external antennas used with either the access point or the receivers, Alsobrook notes.
The system as currently designed doesn’t work with already installed set-top-boxes. Customers who want to connect a TV set wirelessly get a receiver which links directly to the TV via HDMI cable.
The wireless receiver supports the U-verse Total Home DVR capabilities to manage and play back recordings and pause and rewind live TV from any TV in the home, notes GW Shaw, executive director of U-verse marketing. “AT&T is bringing a new freedom to the TV experience, giving consumers the benefit of watching TV in virtually any room in the home,” Shaw says. “Cisco’s wireless IPTV solution gives our customers flexibility with where they can place and watch their TVs, and offers a faster and simpler set-up process for customers and U-verse technicians.”
Existing U-verse customers who want to add TV connections can install the whole system themselves. “In the past, if a customer wanted to connect another TV to the service, they’d have to wait for a technician to come to install the new receiver,” Alsobrook notes. “Now you receive the access point and receiver in the mail, plug the access point into the gateway and connect the TV to the receiver with the HDMI cable. It’s a push-button activation.”
Even more important to AT&T and other Cisco customers as a motivation for moving to wireless connectivity is the fact they can accelerate installation of first-time customers, he adds. “A lot of our customers are constrained in how fast they can growth their subscriber bases by the size of their installation workforce, so cutting installation time is very important to them,” he says.
But there’s also potentially a huge marketing advantage that comes with giving consumers the ability to move their TV sets around the home as they see fit. Prior to launching the new wireless connection service AT&T conducted a consumer survey to gauge its appeal.
More than two-thirds of respondents said it was very or somewhat important to have the flexibility to move the TV from one location to another without needing a TV outlet, AT&T reports. Eighty percent said the ability to place a TV in a room where there’s no outlet is an important reason for having a wireless receiver, and more than half said they would most likely use the receiver to move a TV to a porch or patio.
“The range of signal reach is on the order of 150 feet, so moving the TV outside would be an option for most households,” Alsobrook says. In terms of interior reach, “that range will work for just about all houses,” he adds.
Cisco has found especially strong interest in the technology among North American IPTV providers. The company also has targeted the platform as a component of its Videoscape initiative, which is meant to facilitate migration to IP by cable TV providers as well as tighter convergence of networks and operating systems for multiscreen services from IPTV and cable providers alike.
“We’ll be coming to market with next-generation products with higher bandwidth and more range,” Alsobrooks says. Cisco will be sticking with the Wi-Fi foundation for these home-oriented products, he adds.