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New TV over IP possible

By ipedan

Section: News

February 11, 2005

Five years after Brandeis began providing cable television for every student on campus, Information Technology Services (ITS) is piloting a program that can bring it to the computer screen.

Announced to campus media last week after inquiries from the Hoot, the pilot begins Monday and will allow students to view Comedy Central, FOX 25, and Owl Vision, a channel run by ITS, using a Java applet in their web browsers. The system, known as IPTV, transmits television signals as data over the campus computer network.

System Services Manager John Turner told the Hoot that he received test equipment from Video Furnace, a small Illinois-based company, at the end of winter break. ITS initiated a search for a new system because the existing five-year cable contract with Comcast ends this fall. Turner said that if testing goes well, IPTV will be launched next semester in place of the current coaxial cable distribution system.

If the system is implemented, Brandeis will join a handful of other colleges using the system, including Northwestern University (NWU) and Dartmouth University, both of which do not have dorms wired for traditional cable TV. The Hoot was unable to find any school implementing Video Furnace that already has an existing cable infrastructure.

We are not the pioneer of this technology. NWU has had this for over 2 years, and many other institutions have been using Video Furnace, Turner said. Several other universities have been using other forms of IPTV. We will be one of the few Universities to deploy this technology to the desktop and we feel that now is the right time to get into it.

Features

Because IPTV operates on personal computers, anyone with a properly configured Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer will be able to watch television, a welcome addition for some students without TV sets.

Im excited about IPTV because I dont have a TV in my room, and now I could watch on my computer, Beth Wexelman 07 said. Its better then nothing.

It will also allow Brandeis to better manage the channel lineup, according to Turner.
In the current system, Brandeis receives a feed from Comcast of the same programming offered to the Needham community. Eleven foreign language channels are injected into the feed, and then distribution equipment sends the signal to cable drops around campus. In the new system, according to Turner, Comcast will still deliver the signal to campus, but it will then be transferred to the Video Furnace devices in order to be distributed to the campus. Cable television jacks will no longer work.

In a 2001 interview with the Justice, Chief Information Officer Perry Hanson said that with the current equipment, adding or replacing a channel in the lineup will cause static on the channels directly above and below. With Video Furnace, channels will be handled by separate servers and there will be no interference problems.

We have some 70 odd channels and most of those channels go unwatched completely, said Turner. Right now we dont have the flexibility to get rid of those. Comcast doesnt allow us to remove a channel from the lineup, we can only replace it. With the new system, we would only carry the channels that people watch.

Because the new system loads in a web browser, students will be able to watch multiple channels at once and independently control volume on each channel. The Hoot, which had pre-release access to the system, tested this feature by watching three channels at once. Video and sound quality did not degrade.

The software also displays a program guide that shows what is playing on each channel. To change channels, a user simply double clicks on the title of the program. Hanson believes that this feature, and the ability to watch television wherever there is a network connection, will hopefully have a positive affect on the utilization of those channels.

Associate CIO Anna Tomecka, who oversees the Video Furnace project, says that she hopes with the easy availability of this technology professors will start using it to stream videos to their students.

Brandeis currently offers 60 channels of programming and has ten channels reserved for on-campus usage. Currently only BTV65 broadcasts programming. Channel 63 displays a loop of two announcements. The channels have not been used for professors to distribute video. According to Hanson, the new system will make local programming easier.

[It] is really about the flexibility and ease of use of the new technology, said Hanson. The management capabilities make it much, much easier for us to afford to provide content on IPTV.

However, Student Union Treasurer Aaron Gaynor 07, who has been investigating the technology, questions the value of new local broadcast capabilities. While saying that professor programing is very plausible, he adds that, how many professors are actually going to take advantage of it is questionable. Some professors are pretty tech-savvy, and some dont even know how to use WebCT.

Northwestern Experience

Unlike Brandeis, Northwestern had no pre-existing coaxial cable infrastructure. It would have cost over $2 million to install cable in the dorms at NWU, according to David Carr, Director of Telecommunications and Network Services in an article in Network World Fusion in 2003.

Carr said a rack of 20 Video Furnace servers sit in the schools network operations center, each encoding a single channel of television. The servers use a technology called multicast, a method of sharing one set of data with multiple client computers, to keep the schools network from being overloaded. It takes only a few seconds to download the Video Furnace player, according to Carr.

Turner explained how multicast worked. If we have 20 channels and 20 people connect to each one of those 20 channels thats the maximum bandwidth. If 100 people connect beyond that, it doesnt change, he said.

The lack of channels has provoked an ongoing vigorous debate on the Northwestern campus. The Daily Northwestern newspaper also reports that students will often experience fuzzy and pixilated reception, and sometimes the system will stop working entirely.

Turner said that because of Brandeis high-speed gigabit fiber optic network backbone, this should not be a problem here. Northwestern also has a gigabit backbone.

The same procedures that are in place if a server that runs the phone system or web system or SAGE goes down will take care of the IPTV system, Turner said. Our technicians are on call 24 x 7 to resolve system problems. The systems also have built in redundancy, to handle most common failures.

Student voice in Decision

Gaynor and Student Union Secretary Aaron Braver 07 are leading the effort to ensure student voice is heard in the trial process. Members of the Student Information Technology Advisory Committee have also met to discuss the proposed changes.
I think it is very important that students have a lot of input in this process, Braver told the Hoot after meeting with Tomecka. They should be actively included in the trial of this system.

Hanson said that student opinions will be considered when deciding whether to move forward with IPTV. However, he would not go so far as to say students have veto power over the new system.

In the end well look at all the input we receive, the costs of maintaining the old, the cost of new, the flexibility of the new, the added features, and so on, Hanson said.
Student reaction and opinion is always important, he added. Id rather move forward believing that we are going to work out a partnership to resolve any issues that seem to get in the way. The pilot is to work out the issues that have to be resolved. I will seek input from my student advisory committee in particular and other elected members of
student government.

Legality: Comcast contract

According to Tomecka, the expiration of the five year Comcast contract offered Brandeis an opportunity to try something new. The new system would still use Comcast to deliver the channels, but because they would be distributed through IPTV, Brandeis would have complete control over things like channel lineup.
As part of agreement with content providers such as NBC, Comcast needed to make sure that this new system protected their rights.

According to Turner, Comcast also provides cable to Northwestern University (NWU), reportedly the first University to use Video Furnace software to deliver television programming to the entire student body. This preexisting IPTV agreement with NWU may have made it easier for them to accept Brandeis proposal.

Before the existing contract, students needed to set up their cable independently through the local provider, which was then MediaOne. Numerous articles in the Justice during that time report that MediaOne offered poor customer service, billed students for services they did not receive and frequently missed scheduled appointments to install cable. The move to a central cable system five years ago was a welcomed change for many students. The costs for the change were included in increased housing costs, according to the Justice.

When asked if the cable fee added to housing costs would be lowered to reflect savings provided by the new system, Hanson replied, what cable fee?

Cost and implementation

According to Hanson, Brandeis currently pays about $10 per cable drop per month. Using an estimate of 2,500 active drops on campus, yearly bills would total around $300,000. Hanson also told The Hoot that it costs about $300,000 to maintain the current cable infrastructure per year, but it is unclear if he was referring to additional maintenance and depreciation costs or was simply restating the cost of cable television service.

According to Tomecka, money saved with IPTV would be diverted elsewhere but would still be used in the area of telecommunications.

Hanson would not speculate at how long IPTV would be expected to last if implemented at Brandeis.

The life of any infrastructure changes over time and for technology the half-life gets shorter and shorter, which is very frustrating, but part of the business, Hanson told the Hoot. As soon as we do 10 Mbps, 100 is available;

with 100, 1000 comes along and so it goes. And, of course, theres the issue of cable versus Ethernet versus wireless there will be a lot of shaking out over the next couple of years [to determine sustainability].

Hanson said that the final cost to the University is unknown at this time because the pilot will be used to figure out more details about what we are up against. He said ITS will need a lot more feedback as to what is needed and what is not.

The Hoot has learned that the Video Furnace server hardware and software was available about a year ago for $13,000 per unit. If ITS were to purchase 35 servers, the minimum required to maintain all existing channels, that would add up to $455,000. Volume discounts and lower pricing could lessen the cost.

In addition to the cost of the system, Brandeis would also need to pay for the cable television service. Instead of paying per drop as with the old setup, Brandeis would pay for licenses per channel based on viewership. Licenses would cost between $8 to $15 per month and would be based on the number of unique users who viewed each channel. This method of paying based on usage could make budgeting for the new system difficult.

BTV

Contrary to rumors reported elsewhere, BTV has not used the new IPTV system to broadcast yet. However, they have obtained a new system, completely separate from Video Furnace, which allows them to use the computer network to send live video back to their studio. BTV has recently tested this new system by broadcasting a live basketball game. They have also been involved in discussions relating to the IPTV trial.

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