Watching TV anywhere and everywhere

The growth of TV carried over Internet pipes means that more viewers will be watching in public on personal devices. Fortune's Stephanie Mehta tunes into the future.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- You'd think that people already watch enough television in their homes and offices. But no: increasingly companies, especially outside the United States, are trying to find ways to pipe television to us wherever we are.

Consider: PCCW (Charts), the Hong Kong-based phone company that pioneered Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), is now looking at ways to deliver IPTV in coffee shops, train stations, parks and other public places. The telephone company is deploying a network of 3,000 Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Hong Kong that, they hope, will allow customers to watch subscription television services they'd normally have to watch at home.

The concept of "place shifting" TV viewing has been popularized in the U.S. by Sling Media, whose Slingbox lets customers watch their home television programming on any device that's hooked up to a broadband connection by using routers and software to redirect cable or satellite TV signals over the Internet. (Co-founders Blake and Jason Krikorian came up with the idea because they wanted to watch San Francisco Giants games on their computers when they weren't at home.)

IPTV, in theory, makes place shifting even easier. As the name implies, IPTV transmits video programming in Internet Protocol, the language of the 'Net. (PTV is different from Google's (Charts) YouTube or other video-over-broadband services, which feature select programming for download or viewing. As it is deployed by most phone companies today, IPTV offers so-called "linear" programming - pretty much the same pay television lineup you might get from the cable or satellite company - delivered over phone lines.

According to Selina Lo, CEO of Ruckus Wireless, which is supplying gear for the Hong Kong Wi-Fi effort, telcos such as PCCW are keenly aware that customers increasingly want to access their video services remotely, much the way they now check e-mail or check out their favorite Web sites while waiting in airport lounges or cafes. "The triple play," says Lo, referring to the bundle of phone calling, Internet and television services offered by phone and cable operators, "is moving outside the home. People want to access what they have at home when they are on the road, away from their sofas."

Lo's company makes a special public Wi-Fi access point especially designed to handle video and other hearty streams of traffic. (PCCW is a customer.) Today, Lo says, there are plenty of access points developed for home and office uses, and a number of companies supplying heavy-duty access points for municipal applications. But, she says, there aren't many companies addressing the middle of the market.

And so Ruckus, which got its start making a networking product for the home, decided to make an affordable hot spot for public places: Its new hotspot can deliver 20 megabits per second of data throughput -- more than enough to handle video -- but at $199, won't break the bank. Lo thinks phone companies can figure out a way to make additional revenue by making the voice-video-data bundle available to users on the go.

A telco, for example, could charge customers additional monthly fees for the privilege of accessing video content and Internet accounts while at a hot spot. "If broadband, IPTV and voice is the triple play, then the quadruple play is public Wi-Fi service," Lo says.

Sounds like a great idea for U.S. service providers, who are locked in a fierce battle with cable operators over residential customers. And indeed, many U.S. phone companies operate Wi-Fi networks. The problem, Lo suggests, is that phone companies are missing a key component of her version of the quadruple play: IPTV. "Sometimes I think I'm going to die before it [IPTV] is a reality in North America," says Lo. "I'm not happy at all with the speed of deployment, but it is happening."

The biggest proponent of IPTV in the U.S, AT&T (Charts), is in just a dozen or so markets in the U.S. There are many reasons for the slow deployment of telco TV in the U.S., ranging from technology issues to regulatory hurdles. In many states, for example, phone companies need to seek franchise agreements in each town in which they seek to offer service, a time-consuming process.

And it isn't clear whether U.S. phone companies have permission from studios and other content creators, to let users watch programming outside the home -- or if they'd want customers to do so over Wi-Fi networks. AT&T and Verizon (Charts) both operate national wireless companies, and they might like customers to access content over company owned-and-operated 3G (third generation) broadband cellular networks.  Top of page