Several big telecommunication carriers and equipment suppliers hope to accelerate the deployment of internet-based television services by agreeing to a set of interoperable technology specifications.
The Open IPTV Forum plans to support efforts to create open standards and define deployment specifications for internet protocol television (IPTV), which allows telcos and cable operators to deliver programmes over broadband networks.
Two key suppliers of IPTV technology are absent from the group, however: Microsoft and Alcatel-Lucent.
Microsoft in particular has pushed hard to capture a piece of the nascent IPTV market in Europe and the US. It has won contracts for its deployment platform, Microsoft TV IPTV Edition, from several network operators, including AT&T and Telecom Italia.
Despite not joining the new group, Microsoft said it participates in several other standards bodies that it said are related to IPTV, including the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).
Alcatel-Lucent did not respond to a request for comment.
Founding members of the Open IPTV Forum include network operators AT&T, France Télécom and Telecom Italia, and vendors Matsushita Electric Industrial Company (Panasonic), Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Siemens Networks (which is merging with the network division of Nokia) and Sony.
"What we have today are many different groups working on very specific standards but not always aware of how these standards should enable an end-to-end service," said Ilyana Guzman, a spokeswoman with Ericsson, another of the founding members. "We support open standards and want to create a specifications document that shows how these standards can be used for a complete IPTV delivery solution."
The forum comes as telcos around the world seek swift, reliable and cost-efficient ways to launch IPTV offerings to help offset the drop in demand for their traditional telephony service.
Numerous operators, including BT Group, Deutsche Telekom and Swisscom, have already launched IPTV services. While many have chosen Microsoft's platform, others are mixing rival systems supplied by Siemens and Alcatel-Lucent.
None have found the deployment of IPTV to be easy, according to analysts.
"While the IPTV market is growing, the reality is, it's not an easy business for anyone," said Nate Elliot, senior analyst at iSuppli. "It's a challenge to connect all the dots and offer a seamless end-to-end service."
Several of Microsoft's customers, including Swisscom and Deutsche Telekom, encountered glitches when they deployed the platform, resulting in delays.
Although the Microsoft system boasts an end-to-end design, it requires operators, essentially, to put all their eggs in one basket and rely on one vendor delivering all the necessary IPTV components across their networks, from content gathering and processing to end-user delivery, according to Elliot.
Operators want a certain amount of flexibility, which they can have by working with more than one vendor, he said.
Forming a consortium that will address interoperability issues makes sense, Elliot said, and is certain to help accelerate the deployment of IPTV service.
The number of European households using IPTV is expected to grow from 2.6 million in 2006 to more than 10.2 million by 2011, according to iSuppli.
Additional information about the new industry group is available at Open IPTV Forum.