The world's first TV-based video communications service was launched last month in Italy. The network already supported voice, data, and video on demand (VOD) services but the key is videoconferencing for private customers through normal TV sets and phone handsets.
The "capillary" fibre network was developed by FastWeb, the broadband telecoms operator of e.Biscom Group (www.ebiscom.it). So far, it has established fibre connections within and between six Italian cities (Milan, Rome, Genoa, Turin, Bologna, Naples) with a separate "island" arrangement for Hamburg in Germany.
The capillary approach supports "practically unlimited band capacity". Using IP, the architecture runs on equipment such as IP switches and routers. The key supplier has been Cisco. Its 12000 Series routers are installed at each point of presence to connect to the metro area backbone, mainly for business customer access. The POPs are also connected to mini-POPs using Catalyst 6000 family switches (in residential areas).
Using IP switching ensures integrated management of high volumes of voice, data and video traffic that can easily be increased for future network growth. With this platform e.Biscom has integrated previously separate functions and developed value-added services that can run on the same connection.
FastWeb supports access at up to 10Mbit/s for residential customers and "practically unlimited" speeds for business customers. IP allows development of ADSL in cities where the fibre infrastructure is being rolled out, enabling customers still awaiting a fibre connection to access such services — at up to 2Mbit/s downstream and 512kbit/s upstream.
Business applications include video surveillance, Internet access management, disaster recovery, VPNs, including enabling staff to telework with "office-rate access" to the firm's LAN.
Private customers can subscribe to VOD, choosing from a library of 2300 films available "at DVD quality" for about EUR2–6 a time, the equivalent cost of rental. e.Biscom's content provider and partner e.BisMedia has enabled the development of interactive video services and a wide range of programming through agreements with the likes of 20th Century Fox, MTV/Nickelodeon, the BBC, and Italy's RAI.
For videoconferencing, users need a TV set, a touch-tone phone and a Fastweb video camera above the TV set. The user calls the conference party on the conventional number after pressing the asterisk key. After a voice conversation the recipient can choose to accept the video link by also pressing the asterisk key.
If the recipient does not want to be seen, pressing the "0" key keeps the call voice-only.
At a Rome presentation, Italy's government Minister for Communication Maurizio Gasparri said, "Business potential in the communications sector has been exaggerated and there have been speculative bubbles, but after this we see that Fastweb is going ahead and keeping its promises. The Italian government has identified broadband as a strategic priority. The video conference solution is now cost-effective for the family."
Silvio Scaglia, CEO of e.Biscom and FastWeb, told LWE, "We now have a network that can offer 10Mbit/s, fast video and phone services. For a traditional family, 10Mbit/s is a great rate to access in the home. You could view two videos and still have enough bandwidth to make conventional phone calls or video-phone calls. "With the video-conferencing we are bringing new application to education and families. There are also health applications such as rapid transferral of x-rays. "Until now we have had videoconferencing over computers but only with a small viewing window. Now we have an image the size of a TV screen... The quality is phenomenal and achieved with a relatively economical camera; rental of the camera is EUR11/month."
Fastweb had been expecting 200,000 customers in Italy by end-2002 but by the time of the launch it was on target for 240,000.
The company is in the process of connecting every building in the seven cities. Said Scaglia, "All of the hardware in the cities and the core networks are linked apart from Hamburg, which is still effectively an island. At each POP we offer 2G rates in parallel so, if necessary, we can scale it up to meet demand."
"Fastweb launched three years ago. I don't see competitors coming within the next two years. In Italy and in Germany, competition will take a couple of years. If VDSL and IP services are developed by Telecom Italia then they may have comparable expansion plans.
"Today we have too much bandwidth on the long-haul links, but not in the metro area. A development such as VOD will remove some of the available bandwidth."
"Our investment in each customer could be as much as EUR1000–1500 per site. We particularly want to serve the corporate market. The full Fastweb services cost EUR85 per month, which includes all land-line calls in Italy and always-on Internet access and TV services.
About 60% of clients have optical links and 40% copper; the latter have voice calls and Internet but not VOD or video conferencing.
Fastweb aims to reach positive cash flow by 2005 before expanding into other cities in Italy and Germany. "We are expecting rival companies to do something like this in the UK and France," says Scaglia.