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My TV shifts time

IPTV gets you TV, phone, and the Net, all on one phone line and bill. It’s far from perfect, but for one terrific feature.

tech reviews Updated: Mar 22, 2010 09:44 IST
Prasanto K Roy

Last month, we gave up our Tata Sky connection. There wasn’t anything wrong with it. But when we moved within our apartment complex, our new flat didn’t have a DTH dish. Rather than get one installed, I thought we’d try out some IPTV.

We already had an Airtel landline phone line with broadband, so it took just a phone call to add IPTV service. It was promised in a day and took a week, all blamed on computer glitches.

Airtel charged us Rs 1,750, replaced our wireless router, and added a set-top box which connected with a network cable to the router. The actual installation took an hour. We switched to a Rs 1,499 monthly plan, including phone service, unlimited-data internet access at 512 kbps (1 Mbps at night), and IPTV with 139 channels. They also have cheaper IPTV monthly packs starting at Rs 399 (no internet access), Rs 999 (256 kbps unlimited) and so on.

Should you care whether you have satellite TV or IPTV?

Well, convergence is a nice thing. There’s a single wire coming into your house, for phone, internet access and television. And you get a single monthly bill for all the services.

Oh, and unlike satellite TV, which is affected by weather (a storm, or even dark clouds can kill your signal) IPTV is usually unaffected. And there are the killer features: video on demand, and time-shift TV... more about those later.

On the flip side, I found IPTV picture quality not quite as good as DTH (whether Airtel’s or Tata Sky’s). There’s a bit of graininess and pixelation at times, especially on a larger TV (we’re using a 42-inch LCD).

The worst part of it all is the speed. IPTV is slow. Changing channels takes time: try to hit the menu or guide and pick a channel – every button you press has a delayed response. If you’re used to quickly jumping to a channel with Tata Sky or Dish TV (or even Airtel DTH), forget it. It’s a lot quicker if you remember the channel number (such as 709, my nearly-three-year-old daughter’s favorite Cbeebies), or set it up on the favourites.

Shifting time

IP is internet protocol, the language of the digital networks that make up the internet. If you have broadband at home, that IP connection lets you browse the web, or make an IP telephony call using Skype. Or watch television, if your phone operator sells IPTV service: MTNL, BSNL, and Airtel do. Satellite TV, or DTH, broadcasts many channels together. You can quickly switch from one channel to another, or view the menu, without delays. But DTH isn’t interactive, because broadcast is one-way, and you can’t send commands back to the service except on an alternate channel such as SMS.

IPTV on the other hand is unicast. There’s just one channel, and it’s streamed to you alone. You can send commands back to the service, so it’s interactive. In fact, when you change a channel, the command goes back to the Airtel server, and the new channel is streamed to you. That’s why the delays, of up to one second, for every command on the remote-control. But this gives you two very exciting interactive services.

Video on demand lets you pick (and pay for) a movie. Airtel’s selection isn’t exciting, but it’s growing. Prices range from Rs 25 to Rs 75. Unlike with DTH (unless you’ve bought Tata Sky Plus) you can control the movie like a DVD player – start, pause, fast forward, rewind.

And you get the one feature that makes IPTV really worth it: Time shift TV.

Time shift TV lets you view a programme when you want to. Did you miss yesterday’s Balika Vadhu on Colors? Or that HBO movie you really wanted to see? You can watch it any time you want to, up to a week later. You can’t do that with DTH (not even with Tata Sky Plus, unless you’ve set it up in advance). Imagine: any time you sit down to watch TV, you have not just the current programmes to choose from, but any programme from the past week, on 40 channels. On HBO or Star Movies, at any given time, you can pick from over 30 movies from the past week. And you have full control: pause, fast forward, rewind, jump past the ads...

I don’t get much time to watch TV, so in the little time I get, it helps to be able to choose one programme from the past week. Which is why, whenever I’m frustrated by IPTV’s slow response to a button on the remote, I get on to time shift TV... and I give up the temptation to switch back to DTH.

The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles including the gadget site www.LD2.in. pkr@cybermedia.co.in, twitter.com/prasanto